Mr “Order Order” John Bercow was out of order this week. The Conservative MP and Speaker at the House of Commons since 2009 astonished Westminster by saying “An address by a foreign leader to both Houses of Parliament is not an automatic right; it is an earned honour…I would not wish to issue an invitation to President Trump to speak in the Royal Gallery…As far as this place is concerned, I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism, and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.” This was an unprecedented outburst of personal opinion and Prime Minister Theresa May’s government was quick to respond that this was not their position. Sajid Javid, Secretary of State, was quite clear: “President Trump is the leader of our most important ally. He is elected fairly and squarely and it’s manifestly in our national interest that we reach out to him, we work with him and that he visits us in the UK.”
Lord Speaker Lord Fowler stated in the House of Lords that he had been omitted from any consensual discussion about President Trump’s address later this year and that he had accepted Mr Bercow’s apology. Lord Fowler continued to say that he had an open mind about the US President’s State visit and said that at the moment either the Speaker can effectively veto any proposal for any visiting leader to address Parliament in Westminster Hall; it was for Parliament to re-consider if there was a better way in which such decisions could be made.
Bercow’s liberal probity has appalled fellow Conservative MPs and he has been accused of cant. Brendan O’Neill, polemist against “groupthink”, accuses Bercow of leading an “infantile moral code” that stereotypes Trump bashers as virtue-signaling goodies and Trump supporters as baddies. Bercow is considered a hypocrite as he voted for war in Iraq when WMDs were not actually proven. He could be said to have the metaphorical blood of the Middle East’s current situation and refugee crisis on his hands.
The media is predictably contrary. The Telegraph claimed Bercow had besmirched his office (which is supposed to be non-partisan and it is true Bercow has undone 400 years of Parliamentary neutrality in the Speaker’s chair). Meanwhile, sources told the Guardian that President Trump’s team expressed no desire to speak in Westminster Hall, or another venue within Parliament. The source suggested that “He wants high visibility visits with key members of the Royal family.”
The Speaker’s expenditure and the company he keeps has also been under scrutiny. In 2014-15, his office cost the taxpayer £504,737. According to Guido Fawkes, satirical political news-updates, his official guests have included the Speaker from North Korea and the vice-chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly, the Emir of Kuwait His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Singapore’s President Tony Tan Keng Yam, President Susilo Yudhoyono of Indonesia; also China’s President Xi Jinping and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani have both addressed Parliament during Bercow’s time. None of these countries have an immaculate human rights provenance. It seems “dictatorships” are welcomed, but apparently not the leader of the free world on a 90-day mission of border security and immigration enforcement improvements to protect his country from foreign terrorists entering it.
Many MPs are offended by Bercow’s spontaneous invective. On Thursday, Conservative MP, James Duddridge wrote to the Prime Minister asking for a free vote of no confidence in the Speaker, requesting an assuranceof no government intervention. Already murmurings of the favoured replacement being Jacob Rees Mogg, the Conservative MP with perfect elocution and manners, are echoing through the corridors of power.
As a footnote it is noted with irony that the Home Office has reneged on the 2016 David Cameron initiative, for 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to be resettled in the UK from Greece, Italy and France, known as the Lord Dubs Amendment. Robert Goodwill, Immigration Minister, said that only another 150 children would be settled before the end of March when the amendment closes. Tim Farron of the Lib Dem party said “May’s treatment of refugee children is appalling, and shows how close she has moved to the policies of Trump.”
Bercow is co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Burma, vice-Chair of the All Party Groups on the Prevention of Genocide, Africa and Sudan and also Secretary of the All Party Group on Human Rights. The AAPG on Burma just concluded a meeting led by Dr Azeem Ibrahim. The persecution of Rohingya Muslims was discussed and the notion that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh was dismissed. Bercow’s most recent publications include Incoming Assets: Why Tories should Change Policy on Immigration and Asylum, a book in favour of an open immigration policy and free movement of labour, and Promote Freedom or Protect Oppressors: The Choice at the UN Review Summit, which proposed the UN Human Rights Commission is ineffective and should be replaced with a powerful Human Rights Council that is not afraid to condemn states when they violate human rights.