Josh May: The case for Bercow speaking his mind on Trump
Many Tories are livid, but the Speaker’s job is to defend the interests of the House of Commons.
Points of order are not, in the main, considered box office occasions. That was not the case yesterday when John Bercow used the platform to launch an unprecedented attack on the leader of the free world.
The Speaker torpedoed the prospect of Trump addressing both Houses of Parliament on his upcoming state visit as he said he was “strongly opposed” to such an idea. For good measure, he then went on to accuse the US president of racism, sexism, and undermining the independence of judiciary.
It was an explosive intervention and – after being praised by the SNP and Labour – been met with a backlash from the Government.
One minister tells The Times Bercow “endangers the institution he is supposed to represent by so blatantly allowing his ego to dictate the position of parliament”, while a source tells the Telegraph it was “armchair politics”.
Tory MP Crispin Blunt adds that the intervention was “to be regretted”. Nadhim Zahawi has just told Today he should “think about his position” after his “unwise” comments.
No word yet from Donald Trump, but Republican congressman Joe Lewis wasn’t very happy on Newsnight.
Seemingly stunned that the mystique of Winston Churchill’s busts had not yet won over the Speaker, Lewis said: “I consider it too, sadly, a slap at the Republican Party. It was the leaders of our party that actually placed the bust of Winston Churchill in the US Capitol building and we urge all persons to come visit our Capitol building.”
Opinion on whether Bercow was right or wrong has largely divided along the lines of whether we should be holding Trump close or making a stand. But the substantive point: whether or not it was within Bercow’s remit to make such comments.
On first sight, it is a political intervention and the Speaker is meant to be “above the political fray”, as Blunt put it. But there is an argument that Bercow’s criticisms of Trump – on sexism, racism and an independent judiciary – are key pillars of democracy, not politics.
Further, the Speaker’s job is to defend the interests of the House of Commons and Parliament and, if he feels such a visit could damage the institution, Bercow surely had a duty to speak out.
Josh May is news editor of PoliticsHome. This commentary first appeared in the PoliticsHome breakfast memo.