As part of our regular “Remember their Audience” series, we examine John Bercow’s announcement that he is to step down as Speaker of the House.
The background: John Bercow has been Speaker of the House during an unprecedented period of broken conventions – from the opposition taking control of Parliamentary business, to repeated “meaningful votes”, and even including the panicky decision to close down Parliament for five weeks. He has announced he will stand down at the next General Election or on 31 October, whichever comes first.
The claim: With talk about the Conservatives breaking yet another convention by standing a candidate against their own MP (John Bercow was a Tory MP) when the Speaker’s seat is traditionally uncontested, there is a feeling he is going before he is pushed. He claims otherwise, saying to the Commons:
“At the 2017 election I promised my wife and children that it would be my last. This is a pledge that I intend to keep. If the House votes for an early general election, my tenure as Speaker and MP will end when this Parliament ends. If the House does not so vote I have concluded that the least disruptive and most democratic course of action will be for me to stand down at the close of business on Thursday, October 31.”
So the big question is, why October 31?
Who he isn’t talking to: (The Public)
As usual in this series, I now take the opportunity to remind you that many things in politics are misunderstood because most of us think we are the audience when in fact we rarely are.
Most people know little about the role of Speaker of the House in any detail. Most opinions on John Bercow (if people even know who he is) are probably formed by a vague sense of him being “for” or “against” their side rather than any knowledge of whether he’s done a good job.
The public will notice his departure only to the extent that newspapers report it through their brexit prisms, which his announced date of October 31 definitely plays to. That is presently the deadline for brexit although almost all political developments of the last two weeks make an extension likely.
With all that in mind, the Speaker of the House is not really a role the public much notices and it is not a role in which the public matters much – so his resignation is not really about the public.
So who is he talking to: (The Divided Commons)
In-keeping with his role as Speaker of the House, his announcement is a very strong message to MPs.
An election before October 31 is clearly unlikely if one is even possible now that the Prime Minister has closed Parliament until mid-October. So his resignation is about brexit and the deadline. That his own party wants to stand another candidate against him in his seat at an election further emphasises that he was probably not going to be Speaker for much longer anyway.
So he has sent a message about timing. By putting the appointment of a new speaker in the hands of the present Commons he has put it in the hands of a very split Commons. He is telling MPs that his replacement will not be a one-party Speaker nor a partisan speaker. That is the case because making the change now will mean any winning candidate will have to achieve some degree of moderate cross-party support.
This makes his resignation statement a powerful message.
Even in standing down he is seeking to send the message that the Speaker must be someone that respects the Commons and does not serve whoever the next government will be.