In an act of political spite which could have profound implications, Downing Street is believed to have sought to deny a seat for life in parliament’s upper house for John Bercow, the Commons speaker.
If followed through, Mr Bercow would become the first holder of the offices in more than two centuries to be denied a peerage at the end of his term, which is expected to wrap up this summer.
The Times reported on Friday that Theresa May would withhold the ceremonial honour following what Number 10 sees as Mr Bercow’s anti-Brexit bias in recent weeks, when the speaker has granted parliamentary privileges to opponents of the prime minister’s position on EU withdrawal.
The speaker is usually automatically elevated to the House of Lords. But a senior Tory told the newspaper that “precedents of Speakers getting peerages don’t last for ever either” – a clear reference to Mr Bercow ignoring parliamentary precedence during a debate last week.
A Cabinet minister was quote by The Times saying: “It’s a good job that peerage nominations are in our gift — I’m sure we’ll be thinking carefully about which individuals we would choose to elevate to the House of Lords. I can’t imagine we would look favourably on those who’ve cheated centuries of procedure.”#
A further report on Friday in The Times’ stable-mate The Sun, also suggested that Mr Bercow’s local Conservative association was seeking to run a candidate against the speaker at the next election, which would threaten his continued tenure in Parliament.
Mr Bercow has been possibly the highest profile occupant of the position, which has been continuously held since 1376. Elected in June 2009 following the resignation of previous speaker Michael Martin, Mr Bercow has frequently claimed he is a “champion of the back benches”.
In his younger days Mr Bercow was a member of the Monday Club, a hard-right wing Conservative debating society, where he supported “assisted repatriation” of immigrants. The 55 year old has drifted to the left since being elected MP for Buckingham in 1997, and was suspected of preparing to defect to Labour in 2004.
By convention, speakers abandon previous political groupings and stand at general elections as independents. They’re usually members of the ruling party, although Mr Bercow was elected during the dying days of the last Labour regime and has spent most of his time under Conservative rule.
As such, he has frequently been at loggerheads with first David Cameron and latterly Theresa May, granting more parliamentary time for the opposition to quiz the leadership and allowing urgent questions forcing ministers to answer MPs on pressing matters in the Commons chamber.
His own perceived Remain sentiments mean that he has become a hate figure for many in his former party, who see him as too close to the Labour party (his wife Sally is a member), and the Times quoted another senior Conservative as calling him “repulsive beyond measure”.
However the decision to remove the bauble of a peerage from his grasp could prove to backfire on the Conservative leadership, who could find that Mr Bercow will now have even less reason to favour the government as we move into the final seven weeks before the March 29 Brexit deadline.
Adam Bienkov, political editor of Business Insider, tweeted that “if Tories hope that briefing that Bercow will be denied a peerage, and / or lose his seat if he stands again, will bring him into line, suspect it will have the opposite effect”:
And Channel 4 News’s political correspondent Michael Crick said that: “Isn’t it counter-productive for ministers to threaten Bercow’s peerage? Surely that will just make him more inclined to carry on even longer as Speaker? Normally peerages are used as bait to persuade MPs to retire”:
Whether he becomes Lord Bercow or remains a plain mister, the speaker, who is universally regarded as being somewhat self-regarding, will at least be able to count on a new constituency of admirers in Europe, who have been impressed by antics during the last few weeks.
In a profile in the Dutch newpaper De Volkskrant, he was described as “the only order in British politics comes from John Bercow’s mouth in these turbulent days”, while Belgium’s Le Soir called him “impossible to live with, often unbearable, but irreplaceable”.
German TV news programme Tagesschau put together a compilation video of the speaker’s finest moments which has had more than a million hits, and he was named ‘European of the Month’ by Radio France Internationale.
His verbosity is not to all tastes. The New York Times described Mr Bercow as “a hilariously pompous speaker”, citing one overbearing put down from his canopied chair. “It is a point so blindingly obvious that only an extraordinarily clever and sophisticated person could fail to grasp it,” he told an petitioning politican.