The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Order! Order! The sharp-tongued speaker of the House of Commons is changing the rules — and maybe Brexit.

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)
Placeholder while article actions load

LONDON — The speaker of the House of Commons doesn’t bang a gavel. You might get the impression that he does. But no. John Bercow stands, he points a finger, he shakes his sheaf of papers, he projects to the cheap seats, bellowing the word “order” over and over.

Britain will be glued to Parliament TV again this week for the next episode of the hit dramedy known as Brexit. The BBC’s public-service television channel has become such a ratings smash that it briefly bested MTV, purveyor of “Teen Mom.” The star of it all is Bercow, 56, a pint-size disciplinarian and champion shade-thrower who is the 157th person to wield the ceremonial mace, but who is the most theatrical, sharp-tongued and proactive speaker in modern time.

Traditionally, the speaker of the House played a low-wattage role, charged with the not-easy-but-still-ordinary role of keeping order in the raucous chamber, choosing which members might ask the prime minister which questions, and controlling the clock. 

Brexit has turned everything upside down, and Bercow has transformed into an extraordinary player, whose broad interpretation of parliamentary rules and upending of tradition have allowed backbenchers in Parliament to wrest partial control over which direction Brexit might go.

“He’s like no speaker who has ever gone before,” said Bobby Friedman, author of the biography “Bercow, Mr. Speaker: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party.” “The name ‘speaker’ is misleading. Previously, the speaker wouldn’t really be expected to speak at all. They chair debates. They keep order, make decisions about procedure and just allow everyone else to get on with saying their piece.” 

“Bercow changed the job,” he said. 

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government on Tuesday will face debate and votes on a raft of amendments allowed by Bercow that could change the trajectory of Brexit. It is entirely possible the members will vote to delay the scheduled March 29 departure date or even stop Britain leaving the European Union without a deal.

Such wily moves are prized by the lowly backbenchers, whom Bercow has showered with attention, and by those who want Parliament to be more assertive in dealing with Downing Street.

But he has upset traditionalists and is loathed by Brexiteers who believe he is working to undermine Britain’s departure from the E.U.

After Bercow earlier this month allowed for a vote giving the prime minister just three working days to present her Brexit “Plan B” after what turned out to be the crushing defeat of her withdrawal agreement, the Daily Mail blasted the speaker as an “egotistical preening popinjay” who “shamelessly put his anti-Brexit bias before the national interest.”

The Sun tabloid branded Bercow “Speaker of the Devil” and amplified the fury directed at his “bid to scupper Brexit.”

Upon election, speakers must discard their party affiliation and are supposed to be neutral on policy. The Times reported this month that May’s government was threatening to punish what they saw as Bercow’s anti-government leanings by setting him up to be the first speaker in 230 years to be denied a peerage — and a seat in the House of Lords — upon his retirement. 

But Bercow gives as good as he gets. The speaker is as colorful as his florid ties. 

He once told Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, the head of Her Majesty’s Treasury and the second-most-powerful figure in government, “Stick to your abacus, man!

He regularly advises raging members, many of them aging gents who enjoy a glass of claret with lunch, to take their medications and mind their stress levels. 

He drilled into one noisy member by saying, “You really are a very overexcitable individual. You need to write out 1,000 times, ‘I will behave myself at Prime Minister’s Questions.’ ” 

Last week, to quiet the braying from the benches, he roared, “Calm yourself; take up yoga!” In another moment, after shouting “order,” he followed his usual exhortation with: “Zen. Restraint. Patience.”

Bercow rails against “sedentary chuntering” and “finger-wagging” by members. He has chided jeering lawmakers as “incorrigible delinquents.”

A lawmaker colleague suggested he slept with a thesaurus.

He’s not afraid of top government ministers. In fact, he seems to delight in popping their corks.

Bercow once turned his oratorical guns on Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary and former health minister, for glancing at his cellphone during debate. “Fiddling ostentatiously with an electronic device defies the established convention of the house.”

The speaker continued: “It’s a point so blindingly obvious that only an extraordinarily clever and sophisticated person could fail to grasp it.”

In a retort to a complaint from Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, Bercow parried, “The honorable lady, she can say ‘pooh’ if she wants. The honorable lady will accept the ruling of the chair and either behave or get out of the chamber. I don’t mind which it is.”

The Guardian’s Brussels correspondent last week wrote that the Europeans love him, noting the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant headlined its profile of the speaker: “No one on the British island can call ‘order, order’ more beautifully than John Bercow.” 

Running for speaker in 2009, Bercow wrote in the Independent, “For far too long the House of Commons has been run as little more than a private club by and for gentleman amateurs.”

He is not of the stereotypical MP mold: born into privilege, schooled at Oxbridge. Bercow grew up the son of a northern London taxi driver. He attended the University of Essex.

He started his career as a far-right, fire-breathing Conservative. But he drifted left and began advocating for socially liberal issues like gay rights, long before it was fashionable among the Tories. His shift left, along with a wicked temper and a tendency to pick fights, resulted in strained relationships with some of his fellow party members. No one enjoys public humiliation.

Friedman said Bercow is “feisty, self-important, quite pompous” and “someone who rubs people up the wrong way very easily.” 

In its investigation into the treatment of House staffers, the BBC last year alleged that Bercow was a bully. An independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the House, however, didn’t mention Bercow but expressed doubts about how much could be fixed under the current leadership.

The Tory lawmaker Anne Main said at the time, “It’s the old adage that the fish rots from the head.”

Bercow has strenuously denied the accusations of bullying and pledged to better address staff members’ concerns.

In a recent debate, one lawmaker charged that Bercow’s impartiality should be questioned because of a “Bollocks to Brexit” bumper sticker on his car.

Bercow said the sticker in question was on his wife’s car.

“I’m sure the honorable gentleman wouldn’t suggest for one moment that a wife is somehow the property or chattel of her husband,” he said, prompting a wave of applause from opposition lawmakers. “She is entitled to her views.”

The speaker is married to Sally Bercow, a former advertising executive and Labour activist. She recently returned to Twitter, following a break after she defamed a Conservative politician, and describes herself in her bio as “100% partisan & political.”

The couple live in an apartment at the Palace of Westminster with their three children.

On the first day of a parliamentary session, the speaker commutes to work preceded by a doorkeeper and the sergeant at arms, followed by the chaplain, speaker’s secretary and the trainbearer, who holds the hem of the speaker’s gold-trimmed robe.

Bercow has dispensed with the traditional knee breeches, silk stockings and wig. He prefers suits and bold-patterned ties — though he has suggested that ties are not compulsory in the House of Commons, which shocked the establishment.

Tony Travers, a politics professor at the London School of Economics, said Bercow would likely see himself not as trying to thwart Brexiteer dreams but as “empowering Parliament” at a time when “government and Parliament cannot between them agree on what Brexit really means.”

Or he might say he’s just trying to restore order.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the leader of the House of Commons. She is Andrea Leadsom, not Leadson.

Theresa May’s unloved Brexit plan is much like the prime minister herself

Britain is operating as if a Brexit delay is there for the taking. It’s not.

A second Brexit referendum was once a pipe dream. Now some wonder if it’s the only way out of the chaos.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news