Comment: Bercow's wild attacks on ministers are missing the point

Alex Stevenson: Bercow has never strayed further from his basic self-appointed mission of being backbenchers' champions.
Alex Stevenson: Bercow has never strayed further from his basic self-appointed mission of being backbenchers' champions.
Alex Stevenson By

John Bercow's petty wars against government ministers are damaging his authority and missing the point. He needs to stop the sneering and concentrate on a much bigger prize.

There is a strong suspicion that the Speaker might be overdoing it a bit. His unprecedented attack on the incompetence of defence secretary Philip Hammond has got Tories, who don't need much encouragement to start frothing at the mouth at the Speaker's behaviour, gnashing their teeth and muttering dark oaths in the corridors.

This is the third outbreak of Bercow anger this week. Yesterday he called Tory buffer Iain Liddell Grainger "rude", "stupid" and "pompous" - in what was actually a case of mistaken identity. Also yesterday, he got a dig in against David Cameron which - in addition to prompting a ridiculous prime ministerial facial expression - was generally viewed as laying it on a bit thick.

Now he has taken on Hammond. Here, at least, the defence secretary was clearly in the wrong. He had showed up to announce details of reserve base closures, and lackadaisical officials hadn't even managed to provide him with a list of the ones set for the axe. Bercow went ballistic.

"The administration of this matter has been woefully inadequate and frankly utterly incompetent," he said to a thoroughly humiliated Hammond. "I've not known a worse example during my tenure as Speaker."

Bercow needs to stop using up his very limited political goodwill on these small-fry issues of administrative incompetence. He needs to concentrate on the bigger struggle for power between the government and parliament.

The relationship between the two institutions is so biased that most voters don't even realise they are separate. The government dominates parliament. Its Commons majority allows it to trample on the backbenchers trying to scrutinise it. Worse laws and bigger abuses of power are the result.

It doesn't have to be this way. After the expenses scandal limited reforms were achieved, including a switch in the appointing of select committee chairs from whips to backbenchers. Now campaigners have a long shopping list of potential reforms which could improve the way parliament does its work: pre-legislative scrutiny, private member's bills and early day motions could all be improved.

Top of the list, though, is the possibility that the government might actually introduce a measure it had originally pledged to implement in the coalition agreement: a House business committee giving backbenchers a say in what the Commons debates. The backbench business committee, a limited, hamstrung version, has proved just effective enough to remind ministers why they like being in charge of parliament's agenda in the first place.

This is the context for Graham Allen's debate on the issue in Westminster Hall yesterday. "Parliament might be the emaciated pet mouse of the 800lb gorilla of executive power, but we are ever conscious of how sensitive and highly strung our master is, so our proposals will not be too frightening," Allen told MPs. He was talking about his select committee's looming report outlining exactly why the government should drop its objections to the House business committee.

The government is being very cagey. It has come up with a long list of "tests" which, it admits, it failed to overcome within the three-year deadline it set itself in 2010. Biggest of all their worries is the overriding concern that ministers must ensure they retain control of the legislative programme.

The political and constitutional reform select committee is expected to publish a report in the next few weeks which meets this concern. But if all he offers is the 'nuclear option' of allowing Commons divisions on the business committee's agenda, he may not be offering enough. That was on the table in the Wright committee's reforms and didn't find any takers in government. The fear is that ministers will simply respond by coming up with some more tests.

Allen, a radical pragmatist who understands the need to tread carefully, will keep his revolutionary instincts in check in the report. He was once a government whip and so knows the sort of kneejerk-prone individuals he is dealing with. They must be handled with care.

His chances of success would be boosted by assistance from the Speaker, but Bercow's antagonistic instincts are not helping. This is the real context for the Hammond outburst: it's not about the Speaker's job security, but about his failure to do a fundamental part of his job.

Bercow has never strayed further from his basic self-appointed mission of being backbenchers' champions. This lunchtime was the moment when his zeal became unproductive and unhelpful. His behaviour is damaging and ignores the bigger picture altogether. Parliament - and by extension our democracy - might end up being be the ultimate loser.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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