As a series finale, it certainly delivered. On the last day of parliament before a highly controversial five-week suspension ordered by the Prime Minister, the House of Commons produced scenes possibly never seen before. In the afternoon, John Bercow gave a Speaker’s Statement in which he announced that he would resign from his role on October 31st, which will have the effect of allowing this deeply divided parliament to choose his successor (rather than the next, remade set of MPs). That person is not necessarily but likely to be from the Labour Party, and the expected frontrunners are Harriet Harman, who launched her bid on Radio 4 this morning, and deputy speaker Lindsay Hoyle.
Would the next Speaker allow what happened next in the chamber? Almost 90 minutes of effusive tributes from opposition MPs followed Bercow’s news, as the divisive figure was praised for his game-changing approach to the role. Although Bercow was subject to claims of bullying and accused of creating a toxic working environment for Commons staff, which he denies, most Labour MPs feel deeply that he changed parliament for the better by advancing reforms such as proxy voting and, of course, making sure that MPs had a say often in defiance of the executive. Newcomers especially say they were warmly welcomed by him personally when first elected, and that he was immensely helpful during their tricky introduction to the Commons.
This was the context for Monday’s events. First, Bercow in his typical generous fashion allowed both a humble address (used by Dominic Grieve to force the government release of private communications concerning the suspension of parliament and no deal) and an emergency debate (requested by Jeremy Corbyn to discuss the rule of law). Then, MPs rejected Boris Johnson’s early election motion for the second time, because opposition parties have agreed not to back one before October 19th. Finally, the question of prorogation itself led to a remarkable protest led by Labour MPs of the Love Socialism group – particularly Clive Lewis and Lloyd Russell-Moyle.
The dissenting MPs made some attempts to prevent Bercow from leaving his chair and held up signs indicating they had been ‘SILENCED’. Members of the opposition benches refused to participate in the prorogation ceremony that followed and shouted “Shame on you!” at those Conservatives who did join the process. It was quite something to watch the sympathetic Speaker make his own views clear: the long suspension was not “normal”, he said, before memorably telling a Tory MP he “could not give a flying flamingo” about their opinion on the matter. Later, the opposition MPs sang in the chamber.
It is evident that MPs feel angry and frustrated, understandably, and also impotent in the face of a government that is more than willing to break the rules of our uncodified constitution. But further consideration must be given to how people at home feel, and what impact this chaos – incoherent to anyone not glued to BBC Parliament and paid to make sense of it – must be having on faith in our democratic institutions. Bercow ensured that the House of Commons had its say at every turn, and arguably that is his role, which he executed very well. Yet this also made it absolutely certain that no decision on Brexit could be made. The outgoing Speaker is not to blame for this hung parliament and its indecision, but we will pay a price for these years of paralysis, and that must be at the forefront of political minds today. What a mess. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.