Being John Bercow cannot be easy. A Conservative MP made Speaker of the House of Commons largely on the basis of support from Labour MPs is inevitably going to exist in a rather odd political hinterland. But he has undoubtedly reinvigorated the role of the speaker in ways that are important but rarely feature in the media.
Many of Bercow’s detractors on the government side of the house are actually simply annoyed that he has approved more requests for emergency questions to ministers than any of his predecessors. He has made the government’s job trickier than a more acquiescent speaker might have done and although his role is to stay very much above the fray of day-to-day partisan politics (he is the adjudicator of the rules) he also has a constitutional responsibility to uphold the integrity of parliament.
Now he is at the centre of an argument about Donald Trump. Bercow has pledged to stand against allowing the newly-elected president to address the British parliament when he visits the UK. In a surprise intervention, he said:
An address by a foreign leader to both houses of parliament is not an automatic right, it is an earned honour … before the imposition of the migrant ban, I would myself have been strongly opposed to an address by President Trump in Westminster Hall. After the imposition of the migrant ban by President Trump, I am even more strongly opposed.
I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and sexism and our support for equality before the law and and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.
Those constitutional commentators who claim Bercow has overstepped the mark are wrong. His role is to protect, defend and enhance the reputation of parliament. Viewed through this lens, it is difficult to argue that he has not actually been incredibly successful. This role is far more important than party politics and those who so readily jump to lampoon Bercow now might do well to reflect on the damage done by the MPs expenses scandal, the poor performance of the previous speaker on that front and all that has been achieved by the incumbent since that point.
Within the Palace of Westminster, even the merest thought of the red carpet being rolled out for Trump – therefore affording him the same constitutional honour as enjoyed by the Pope, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi – haunts the corridors and snugs like a bad smell. In addition to the hundreds of MPs to have registered their concern about a possible visit, lots more were privately concerned about the Victoria Tower being “blinged-up” into a novelty Trump Tower even for just one day, one hour, one minute.
“But it’s undemocratic!” I hear Bercow’s detractors cry. I have three responses to quell their rage.
First, There is the unfortunate truth that Bercow was elected by MPs to undertake this role – to defend the integrity of the institution of parliament and not to be a minion of the government. Second, surveys suggest that Trump is highly unpopular with the British public – the dominant associated keyword being “afraid”. Mr Speaker’s viewpoint therefore resonates with a broader set of public concerns about post-Obama presidential life.
And, finally, there is the simple fact that survey after survey discovers yet more evidence of anti-political sentiment. What the public seems to yearn for is politicians who have a very clear moral compass and are willing to take tough but clear decisions. At least Bercow has done that.