The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

British Parliament Speaker John Bercow bellows ‘Orrrrder!’ for the last time

Speaker John Bercow presides over Britain’s House of Commons with the vocabulary of an Oxford professor and the vocal projection of a carnival barker. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

LONDON — A Halloween Brexit was not to be. Despite all his boasts, Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not see Britain out of the European Union — and the country did not convulse in riots, as some had warned.

But something else momentous did happen: The speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, retired Thursday, leaving his chair after a decade of braying, “Orderrrr!” 

By the BBC’s count, Bercow ordered “order” nearly 14,000 times.

In London parks, children today run around shouting at their obstreperous nursery mates, who’ve maybe had a juice box too many and are monopolizing the swing set, “Orrrder!”

Labour lawmaker Valerie Vaz said goodbye to Bercow by paying tribute to his bladder’s ability to sustain hours of debate and noting that “ ‘order, order,’ is now used by parents around the country” as a disciplinary technique.

But now the speaker’s orotund oratory, his mannered put-downs, his pompous, practiced, often hilarious jawing will be no more. 

Gone, gone will be Bercow’s copyrightable admonitions to the nattering lawmakers to desist from their “chuntering from a sedentary position.”

No more will we hear Bercow’s advice that the right honorable gentle person from wherever “take a soothing medicament” and calm down.

Among Bercow’s classics: “It’s always a pleasure to oblige the honorable gentleman, because his naughtiness is mitigated by his charm.”

And chastising a run-on lawmaker for “her global tour, and potentially her intergalactic tour, in pursuit of evidence that she wishes to adduce on the matter of the appropriate age at which people should vote.”

Bercow reintroduced to popular British lexicon the word “beetled,” meaning to make one’s way hurriedly, as in: Say it, sort it and move on.

And no one could roll out the multiple syllables of “mellifluous” as Bercow could.

“I think the words chunter, medicament, dilate, animadvert, and, perhaps my favorite, saucerations, have been popularized under your speakership and I imagine now are in common parlance in pubs and clubs across England,” Tory grandee and Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg said at Bercow’s final session.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid tribute to John Bercow and his service on Oct. 30 as the Speaker of the House steps down after a decade. (Video: Reuters)

In the centuries-long history of Commons speakers, Bercow was a standout, and not just for his speaking style or his florid ties — which one wag at a Westminster pub compared to a pasta sauce gone wrong. Bercow was a champion of the rights of Parliament and of backbenchers getting to have their say.

Johnson, the prime minister, in his farewell this week, said Bercow had “done more than anyone since Stephen Hawking to stretch time in this particular session,” a backhanded compliment to how the speaker changed the pace of debate in the House of Commons. The prime minister said, “You have sat up there in your high chair, not just as an umpire, ruthlessly adjudicating on the finer points of parliamentary procedure, with your trademark Tony Montana scowl. Not just as a commentator offering your own opinions on the rallies you are watching, sometimes acerbic and sometimes kindly, but above all as a player in your own right.”

Many Tories loathe Bercow because they view him as having turned on his own Conservative Party as speaker and manipulated Brexit debate in favor of those who wanted Britain to remain in the European Union.

After he allowed a vote on a controversial amendment, the Brexit-backing tabloids let it be known how they felt. The Sun went with: “Speaker of the Devil.” The Express said, “You’re so out of order!” The Daily Mail called him an “egotistical preening popinjay.”

With a nod to Bercow’s alleged vanity, opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn began on Wednesday, “I hope you will indulge me for one moment while I say a word about you — I’m sure you will.”

“You’ve done so much to reform this House of Commons, and our democracy is the stronger for the way that you’ve done it,” Corbyn said.

Corbyn said Bercow had transformed Parliament from “a gentlemen’s club” into “a genuine democratic institution.”

After a decade of serving as the House of Commons speaker, John Bercow gave an emotional statement during his final Prime Minister's Question on Oct. 30. (Video: Press Association (PA))

The Washington Post’s London-based correspondents won an hour with Bercow at his reception room in the Palace of Westminster a few months back. 

We worried that one dumb question lobbed Bercow's way would be met with an overhead smash by the fanatical tennis player.

Instead, Bercow quickly settled in for an hour of smart talk — about his love for language and Parliament. 

He claimed he did not practice put-downs in front of the mirror, as we suggested, and denied accusations that he has been biased in Brexit decisions.

The walls of the high-ceilinged room were lined with portraits of past speakers, and Bercow’s was notable, in part, because he is pictured wearing a simple black robe. When he became speaker, he abandoned the traditional dress, including tights, that some of his predecessors wore. 

His portrait also has a coat of arms with the phrase “We are equal,” in English not Latin, bracketed by rainbow colors — Bercow was in favor of gay rights long before it became fashionable in the Conservative Party.

Bercow told The Post that his “biggest single change” in Parliament was the “renaissance of urgent questions,” which he said had been a “popular and effective change, and I have done it for the best reasons.”

That change helped to empower the little guy. Backbench lawmakers were given more space to ask sometimes awkward questions that the relevant ministers of government are compelled to come to the Commons to answer. 

Under Bercow’s tenure, ministerial statements were allowed to run long. “So if there are 50 questioners, 50 people standing, then I’ll call all 50. If that means exchanges run rather long, so be it,” he said.

He also pointed out that when he began in 2009, Parliament had a shooting gallery but no nursery. 

“It’s a much healthier state of affairs to have a nursery but no pistol shooting gallery,” he said.

Bercow’s successor will be chosen on Monday by all 650 lawmakers, who will cast secret ballots.

Lawmakers will have to decide whether they want an interventionist speaker, as Bercow was, or if they want someone who is less, well, Bercow.

When the new speaker is chosen, he or she will be “dragged” to the speaker’s seat. By tradition, the speaker is supposed to show some reluctance to accept the role. According to Parliament’s website, in previous times — hopefully a long, long time ago — if the British monarch didn’t like what the speaker was saying, then “the early death of the Speaker could follow.”

So the speaker needs a little persuasion.

For his part, Bercow seemed a bit reluctant to leave the chair Thursday after tributes from lawmakers that went on for several hours. But he concluded with the traditional question of whether the House votes to adjourn. “I think the ayes have it, the ayes have it,” he said for the last time. “Order, order.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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