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Who is British House of Commons Speaker John Bercow? And why does his resignation matter?

In a surprise announcement, House of Commons speaker Speaker John Bercow said he would step down if the push for an October election fails. (Video: Reuters)

John Bercow, the sharp-tongued speaker of the British House of Commons famed for yelling “Order! ORDER!,” announced his resignation Monday after a decade in the role.

Bercow said he would step down at the end of October if a push by Prime Minister Boris Johnson for an early election failed Monday evening, as is widely expected.

It was the latest bombshell Brexit news and could have implications for Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Traditionally, the speaker of the House of Commons is not a household name. But Bercow is not a low-wattage character.

His colorful ties and even more colorful oratory helped him become a made-for-YouTube star, delighting fans around the world with his rhetorical flourishes. His memorable put-downs — telling lawmakers to “take up yoga” or go on “therapeutic training” courses — have gone viral. His best moments have inspired memes and mash-ups.

He has also played a central role in the clash between the executive and the legislature at a pivotal time in Britain’s history — and the candidates running to replace him will have to indicate whether they intend to emulate or avoid his model.

Bercow’s supporters say he is one of the most reforming speakers in modern times, and that his efforts have given backbench lawmakers a bigger voice.

His critics accuse him of bullying and bending conventions in a way that favors the pro-E.U. side, both of which he denies.

“Throughout my time as speaker I have sought to increase the relative authority of this legislature for which I will make absolutely no apology to anyone, anywhere, at anytime,” Bercow said Monday in an emotional address, with his wife, Sally, looking on from the gallery. 

He had, he said, “sought to be the backbenchers backstop.”

That was the case on Monday, as he permitted lawmakers to control the legislative agenda and seek to hold Johnson and his ministers to account.

“Don’t tell me young man from a sedentary position what I can and cannot say,” he bellowed at one point. “Quite frankly, young man, you can like it or lump it.” 

Johnson was set to suspend Parliament on Monday night for five weeks, a decision that Bercow previously called a “constitutional outrage.” 

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)

In an interview with The Washington Post in May, Bercow denied rumors that he would soon leave his post. “I think it would be rather curious to desert my post at a time like this,” he said.

But on Monday, he told the Commons that “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.” 

Conservatives had, in recent days, threatened to challenge him in the next election — a breach of protocol, which dictates the speaker’s seat is not contested.

The fact that Bercow is a divisive figure was on stark display Monday, as many opposition lawmakers got up to applaud him for his service, while some of the hardcore Brexiteers stayed in their seats.

Tributes lasted for more than an hour.

Michael Gove, a senior member of the government, said that, “from time to time, those of us on this side of the House may have bridled or chastened at some of the judgments that you have made,” but he added that he was “never in any doubt” that Bercow had operated on the basis that the executive was accountable to Parliament.

“Your love of democracy is transparent in everything that you say and do,” he said.

Gove also thanked Bercow for his “energetic efforts” at discipline, which he said was appreciated “even by those of us who may not always be the best behaved in class.”

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Bercow had been a “superb” speaker who had totally changed the way in which the job has been done. 

Brexit is hardly lacking in drama, but for those who tuned into parliamentary television to hear Bercow’s (often ignored) pleas for “Order!!!!,” it won’t be quite the same.

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