Bercow’s job and Parliament’s integrity on the line in Clerk crisis

Order, order: Speaker John Bercow is playing a risky game 

The position of Clerk of the House of Commons is a crucial one, but it is also a role which is meant to be kept well away from the glare of the media spotlight. Until just a few weeks ago, this had been the case, and it is fair to say that very few people outside Westminster had heard of the incumbent Clerk, Sir Robert Rogers. However, recent events have changed all of this as Rogers has been inadvertently propelled into the centre of a political firestorm following his recent resignation.

A widely respected figure with a remarkable knowledge of parliamentary protocol, Rogers was a competent Clerk who was sadly forced to step down due to the conduct of his immediate boss, Commons Speaker John Bercow. According to numerous sources, Speaker Bercow had used unrepeatable language towards Mr Rogers on more than one occasion, and it is not difficult to understand why, in such circumstances, Sir Robert felt compelled to relinquish his position.

Such a situation is concerning enough, especially when one considers the disturbing way in which this episode was covered up by Speaker Bercow after it was raised in Parliament by the flamboyant Conservative MP Michael Fabricant. However, the last few days have brought further scandal as the Speaker has shamelessly bypassed standard protocol in an attempt to appoint a little-known Australian official, Carol Mills, who appears to be totally unsuitable for the position of Clerk of the House.

Alongside his appalling treatment of Robert Rogers, Speaker Bercow’s actions seem to be the manoeuvres of a man who wants to consolidate his own power at the expense of his colleagues. By humiliating a constitutional expert such as Rogers, the Speaker has successfully removed someone who was certainly his intellectual superior, and the following events surrounding the appointment of a successor have seen a whole host of Commons officials sidelined, most notably the popular Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle who was removed from the panel to select a new Clerk.

In contrast to Sir Robert Rogers, Carol Mills appears to be a lightweight appointment with little knowledge of British parliamentary customs and procedure. It is foolish and dangerous for John Bercow to treat the position of Clerk with such contempt, and as a result the outrage which his actions have triggered is totally justified. Numerous high-profile figures from across the political spectrum have lined up to criticise Bercow, including former Speaker Betty Boothroyd, Labour grandees Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett, and the Conservative Leader of the House William Hague.

Since his appointment as Speaker in 2009 John Bercow has been a divisive and controversial figure, especially amongst the right wing of the Conservative Party who see him as a self-obsessed phoney. Despite being a high-profile Conservative MP, Bercow struggled to win substantial support from his own party whilst running for the post of Speaker, and indeed only emerged victorious due to Labour support. Such vilification of a man who hadn’t been able to prove himself seemed unfair at the time, but now it would appear that Bercow’s critics were justified as they simply had the advantage of  already knowing of the significant character flaws which have become glaringly obvious during the five years of his Speakership.

The crisis now engulfing the Speaker over the appointment of a new Clerk could prove to be the straw which breaks the camel’s back, with many talking of a potential vote of no confidence in Mr Bercow if he fails to re-evaluate Ms Mills’ suitability for the role. Bercow’s predecessor, Michael Martin, was the first Speaker of modern times to be brought down in a vote of no confidence, and it would be a great shame if, as with Speaker Martin, John Bercow continues to act in a manner which makes his position untenable.

George Reeves

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