Doublespeak: why Britain shouldn’t want John Bercow to be trading places

The phrases ‘Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow’ and ‘trading places’ were included together in numerous news stories in recent weeks. To my dismay, however, Eddie Murphy will not be performing the important role, though given his work in Hollywood classic ‘Daddy Day Care’ he would seem as suitable a candidate as any. No, John Bercow will not be trading places with a homeless con-man but a figure perhaps even more deserving of our sympathy. Managing proceedings in the Afghan Parliament would not seem the most desirable task, and so to ease the burden David Cameron recently announced that, as part of the Parliamentary Exchange Programme, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi would be spending time managing business in Westminster’s talking shop.

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John Bercow - Parliamentary Ambassador?

Beyond the light-hearted and slightly forced play on words, there is a greater truth to why the film Trading Places is an apt reference point in this case. The plot sees a debate on nature vs nurture descend into cruel farce as an attempt to prove that anyone, even Eddie Murphy’s homeless hustler, can be manipulated to ‘fit the mould’ ultimately comes back to bite the aspiring puppet-masters. It is perhaps a similar ‘arrogance of power’ that the Labour Party is only too keen to pin to David Cameron.  This notion is given greater traction by Cameron’s dealings with Mr Bercow.

Ever since his resignation from the Conservative front-bench in 2002, Bercow found himself in the unconventional position of enjoying greater relations with those outside his party than those within it. Though rumours of his defection to labour never materialised into genuine action, by the time Bercow announced he was standing for the role of Speaker in 2009 relationships with his colleagues had deteriorated to the extent that it is believed as few as 3 Conservative MPs voted for him. His party, now led of course by David Cameron, was not merely angered by his acceptance of an advisory role to the Labour Government, but the wider drift of his views from right to left that had led to numerous clashes with party policy.

It is through this context that Bercow’s controversial performance as speaker must be viewed. Most notably, in the PMQs of a few weeks ago (though it is now perhaps best to view events as pre and post- News of the World scandal)Bercow twice interrupted Cameron, now Prime Minister. Visibly agitated, Cameron’s reaction was one of dismay and disdain for the foe who dare to shout him down. This was a feeling shared by many in his party, as a recent study found the Speaker had interrupted twice as many Conservative MPs as Labour MPs. Some took this as evidence of Bercow’s bias, others of Tory juvenility in the House. Naturally, the truth will no doubt lie somewhere in the middle.

What this partisan squabbling over etiquette masks, though, is Bercow’s genuine ability as Speaker. I am no expert, but as a politics junkie and using his stated desire to modernise the House and its process as a benchmark, I would say that Bercow is doing a relatively good job. Moreover, interrupting MPs when their colleagues are behaving like nursery children is vital to this task, even if its implementation may be conveniently partisan. Bercow surely derives satisfaction from halting the Prime Minister in the midst of a witty remark not simply because of a personal spat, but because it is another, much-needed, chance to remind the country’s esteemed representatives that behaving like an unruly class of pre-teens  is not entirely conducive to the modernisation of their public image.

Without seeking to blow my own trumpet, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Bercow this year. At an event for aspiring political journalists, the Speaker took time out of his schedule to not only hand out awards(since you asked I was the overall winner), but to passionately state his attachment to the cause of wider engagement with the country’s youth through such events. Beyond the feuds of party politics, this seemed a Speaker whose passion for the modernisation of Parliament was dwarfed only by his disarming ability for small-talk. Yes, I know, I’d done so well up to now. Really, though, he is very small. But then, that meeting was as a result of my writing a blog praising Ed Miliband, so perhaps that explains it.

David Cameron may be sending Mr Bercow to Afghanistan out of spite and petty bickering, or he may have done so out of a genuine belief that the whole experience can benefit the Afghan political system. What is sure, though, is that the Speaker is looking to fundamentally modernise the institution of Parliament. I, for one, wouldn’t have him trading places with anyone. Even Eddie Murphy.

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Posted on July 19, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, Conservative Party, Parliamentary Business, Party Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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