MP David Davis is currently known for forming one-third of an uneasy trio with Bo-Jo and Dr Fox to which Theresa May has assigned the tricky task of extricating the UK from the EU; plucked from the backbenches he had inhabited ever since his highly-publicised stunt of quitting Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet in 2008, resigning his seat and then standing for it again, Davis now has the kind of responsibility his 30-year career in Parliament has often hinted at but has never previously seemed likely. However, when he’d only been in the job for a couple of years, he wrote a book timed to coincide with the long-awaited televising of the Commons.
‘The BBC Viewer’s Guide to Parliament’ is a slim little volume penned by Davis and published in 1989. I picked it off the Oxfam bookshelf around five years ago and have to admit it is a handy layman’s introduction to the beguiling institution, one that deciphers some of the more incomprehensible traditions and phrases that regularly crop up both in the press and on TV, the kind that are rarely explained by political anoraks because the assumption is that everybody reading or watching must understand them or wouldn’t be reading or watching in the first place. The cover features ‘Punch’-like caricatures of Thatcher, Kinnock, Lawson, Hattersley, Howe and Robin Cook as well as the then-Speaker of the House, Bernard Weatherill.
The key difference between Weatherill and his three successors in the Speaker’s Chair, Betty Boothroyd, Michael Martin and John Bercow, is evident in his caricature on the cover of the book; he’s depicted wearing the long judge’s wig that had formed part of the Speaker’s traditional uniform for centuries. When the House of Commons finally made it to TV screens, he did indeed appear in the customary apparel and added to the theatre of the spectacle in the process, as befitting the holder of one of Parliament’s oldest posts (dating back to at least 1258).
When Boothroyd became the first female Speaker in 1992, she decided to dispense with the wig and neither of the two men to follow her has chosen to revive it; perhaps television exposure gave the public the impression that the archaic visual trimmings of the Commons were an indication of how out-of-touch Parliament was, and the ‘modernising’ approach from Blair’s Government onwards seems to have mistaken window dressing for content when it comes to how Parliament is perceived by the man-in-the-street. Personally, I believe the grandiose Gothic setting of the Palace of Westminster is entirely suited to powdered periwigs and foppish finery, and no amount of sartorial modernisation can compensate for fixing the factors that provoke genuine grievances in the average member of the electorate.
The last Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, was infamously and unceremoniously ousted in 2009, when he was embroiled in the Expenses’ Scandal, the first Speaker to have been forced out in such a manner since 1659. His successor, the divisive John Bercow, has held the post ever since, despite his widespread unpopularity amongst fellow Tories. Once a member of the notorious, borderline racist far-right Conservative Monday Club, the pint-sized Tory has drifted towards the centre over the past decade or so and has usually found more support within Labour and Lib Dem ranks as a consequence.
As a member of Ian Duncan Smith’s Shadow Cabinet in 2002, Bercow defied IDS’s three-line whip ordering the Tories to vote against Labour’s bill to give unmarried gay and heterosexual couples the right to adopt; his resignation as a result confirmed his embrace of a more socially liberal agenda. The enmity felt towards him by members of his own party was later highlighted during his election as Speaker when it was alleged as few as three Tory MPs voted for him; his election was largely achieved via Labour MPs, who were well aware of the dislike of Bercow in Conservative circles.
The Tory-led Coalition attempted a sneaky ruse to depose Bercow in 2015, proposing a secret ballot vote on the Speaker’s re-election after the upcoming General Election, a motion introduced on the eve of Parliament’s dissolution and in the absence of several Labour MPs who had already headed back to their constituencies. It failed and Bercow was re-elected following the Election.
Two incidents in the Commons yesterday underlined Bercow’s curious relationship with the Conservative Party. The first followed Theresa May referring to one of Jeremy Corbyn’s front-bench London clique, Emily Thornberry, by her actual title of ‘Lady Nugee’; the Shadow Foreign Secretary who sneered at the working-class with her White Van Tweet of 2014 and sent her son to a ‘partially selective’ school (ala noted migraine-sufferer Diane Abbott), clearly regarded this as an insult that doesn’t sit comfortably on her socialist shoulders. She simmered and stewed before crying to teacher, prompting the Speaker to intervene and rebuke the PM.
Bercow grabbed more headlines, however, with his assertion that he would oppose any invitation to President Trump to address both Houses in Westminster Hall; he reminded the Commons this was an entirely optional honour and not necessarily an obligatory one, but he also managed to emphasise his own personal opposition to the Donald’s current travel ban concerning citizens of several Muslim countries. Labour, Lib Dem and SNP MPs who supported the Speaker’s outburst claimed Bercow was saying what many of them thought re the State Visit of the US President, filling the vacuum left by the Prime Minister’s hasty jaunt to Washington and apparent ease in overlooking contentious policies in her desperation to secure a trade deal; prominent Tories, on the other hand, accused Bercow of playing to the gallery and seeking publicity by jumping on the anti-Trump bandwagon.
The impartiality of the Speaker of the House, regardless of which party he or she belongs to, is supposed to be one of the position’s job descriptions, and Bercow has been deemed by some as overstepping the mark with his comments on Trump. One could say he was echoing the sentiments of the majority of the public where Trump is concerned; others could say he and his missus are a little too fond of the limelight and should keep their opinions to themselves. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, there’s no denying that in this 24-hour media age, the post that is almost as ancient as Parliament itself hasn’t been rendered irrelevant by the passage of time, retaining the ability to make itself heard in a way that David Davis’s little guidebook failed to foresee nearly thirty years ago.
© The Editor