John Bercow. Picture: AFP/ISABEL INFANTES
John Bercow. Picture: AFP/ISABEL INFANTES

London — John Bercow is spending his final weeks as speaker of the House of Commons in the same way he has spent the previous decade: putting himself at the center of events and making life difficult for the British government.

Bercow, who announced his impending retirement last week, is the most controversial speaker in decades, possibly centuries. To his fans, he’s a defender of democracy, standing up for parliament against government attempts to sideline it. To critics, he’s an opponent of Brexit who has bent the rules in an effort to stop Britain from leaving the EU.

Parliament’s vitriolic Brexit debates have elevated Bercow, 56, whose shouts of “Order, order” and refusal to invite President Donald Trump to address the chamber made him something of a celebrity. Now, due to stand down once a successor is elected in November, Bercow is making a cameo appearance in New York on Monday to talk to university students about his life as speaker.

In the UK parliament, the speaker is supposed to be a neutral umpire. But even before Brexit polarised British politics, Bercow was despised by many Conservative lawmakers. He had been one of them but won the speakership after a long courtship of Labour votes, and they argued he continued that path in office.

Bercow’s argument is that he has aimed to restore the reputation of the Commons. He took over the job in 2009, after a scandal about the expenses claimed by MPs forced the resignation of his predecessor.

In an effort to win respect back for MPs, Bercow encouraged them to hold the government to account. Where previously parliament had often been the last place where a topical issue might be discussed, Bercow was enthusiastic in forcing ministers to come to parliament and explain themselves.

That this change coincided with the arrival of a Conservative-led government explains much of the perception that he is anti-Tory.

That dissatisfaction reached a new level this year as Bercow made a series of rulings against the government, overturning the usual rules of how parliament works. He allowed the government’s opponents to take control of business, but enforced them when blocking former Prime Minister Theresa May from bringing her Brexit deal back repeatedly for more votes.

‘No apology’

Other criticisms are more personal. Unsurprisingly in a parliamentarian, Bercow likes the sound of his own voice. His frequent appeals for brevity in others are often comically lengthy. More serious are allegations of bullying levelled against him by some former staff, which he vehemently denies.

“If ever there was a politician who contained multitudes, it was John Bercow as speaker,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “Almost single-handedly, he managed to pull the House of Commons back into a more central role in the nation’s political discussion, while also doing much to change the way it worked internally.

At the same time, “his personal behaviour was much criticised and he leaves the post of speaker much more politicised than when he came in to office,” Cowley said.

Announcing his retirement, Bercow tried to write his own epitaph. “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 any time.”

As he sees it, he has only been on the side of parliament. And whatever his critics say, this points to the fundamental problem for both May and her successor as prime minister Boris Johnson: Neither has had the support of parliament.