“There are three golden rules for Parliamentary speakers: Stand up. Speak up. Shut up.” — J. W. Lowther in 1917, speaker of the House of Commons from 1905 to 1921
The role of the speaker of the House of Commons is a difficult one. You have to be partisan, apolitical, and impartial. No mean feat when you’re as outspoken as John Bercow.
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Bercow has been accused of damaging the UK’s so-called special relationship with the US after he vowed to block US president Donald Trump from speaking in Parliament.
Bercow accused Trump of “racism and sexism” and directly criticised his administration’s controversial travel ban that has sparked protests around the world.
Bercow told MPs:
“We value our relationship with the US. However, 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.
“Before the imposition of the migrant ban, I would myself have been strongly opposed to an address by president Trump in Westminster Hall.
“After the imposition of the migrant ban by president Trump I am even more strongly opposed to an address by president Trump in Westminster Hall.”
The backlash has been harsh and divisive, with few people able to condemn Bercow’s comments but questioning the wisdom and timing he has chosen.
Senior figures accused the speaker of grandstanding – while his counterpart in the House of Lords, Lord Fowler, was understood to be irritated by the unexpected statement.
Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi warned Bercow risked being seen as hypocritical for refusing to allow Trump to speak at Westminster when he raised no objections to appearances by the likes of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
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However, others have come to his defence.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn backed the Speaker’s stance, hitting out at Mr Trump’s “misogyny and his racism and his behaviour over international law – particularly on the convention on refugees” on BBC Radio London.
Stesphen Kinnock, the Labour MP, has praised John Bercow’s words and said he was “speaking for the Mother of Parliament.”
The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush wrote this morning:
“The argument that Bercow overreached doesn’t stand up; the invitation to address Westminster Hall is his to give, not Theresa May’s. It is one of the responsibilities that Bercow was elected to fulfill – and don’t forget, he has now been elected twice to the office of Speaker.”
Can he survive this time?
This is very different from Bercow’s previous run ins with controversy — putting himself at odds with the government, with only a weak and confused opposition to give him support.
Tory MPs are considering forcing a vote of no confidence in the speaker.
There was also an angry response from the US, with Republic congressman Joe Wilson telling BBC Newsnight: “That’s very disappointing, because if ever in recent years there’s been a more pro-British President of the United States, it’s Donald Trump.”