/Order! The end of the John Bercow era

Order! The end of the John Bercow era

LONDON — The era of John Bercow is coming to a close.

The House of Commons Speaker — one of the few household names in U.K. politics and one of the most famous abroad — will be out of the job by the end of the month.

A challenge awaits whoever replaces him when he steps down: how to steer the country through the choppy Brexit waters ahead without courting nearly as much controversy.

Bercow’s flamboyant speeches and sarcastic put-downs to colleagues have made him an online hit for the YouTube age. And his actions on Brexit — effectively helping parliament assert its dominance over the government — have made him a hate-figure or a hero depending on which side of the debate you’re on.

The nine candidates in the race to replace Bercow will want to keep alight his legacy of empowerment for backbenchers, but with its wings considerably clipped.

“If I was the speaker I wouldn’t want to be a household name” — Labour MP Rosie Winterton

At a hustings in Westminster on Wednesday morning, the candidates laid out their positions on a range of issues and spelled out how they would diverge from the current regime in a bid to win the support of colleagues when the House of Commons votes on November 4 to decide who should succeed Bercow.

The candidates are: Tory MPs Henry Bellingham, Shailesh Vara and Edward Leigh, Labour MPs Chris Bryant, Harriet Harman and Meg Hillier, plus current deputy speakers Lindsay Hoyle, Dame Eleanor Laing and Rosie Winterton.

Here are five things set to change once Bercow goes:

Fading celebrity

Bercow is famed for making his mark on big political events and using the chair to deliver long interventions. All of the nine candidates vowed not to use the position for grandstanding.

Labour MP Harriet Harman is in the running to succeed Bercow | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“If I was the speaker I wouldn’t want to be a household name,” said Labour MP Winterton, one of the three deputy speakers. Tory MP Leigh added: “I would like to be unremembered. The problem with our present speaker is that he is the story and the speaker should not be the story.”

Bryant summed it up when he said: “The speaker just has to speak less.”

Curb the sarcasm

Some of the MPs in the race — chiefly the Tories — laid into Bercow for his combative approach to keeping order in the Commons. Vara said the incumbent had “at times behaved like verbal playground bully in the way that he treats his colleagues,” adding: “He insults them, he demeans them, I think that he loses all authority to lecture MPs as to how they should behave when his own behavior on this in question.”

Most of the candidates criticized Bercow either directly or tacitly in their remarks, making clear that they would lower the temperature in the Commons.

Quick-fire questions

One of the chief complaints among Westminster-watchers is that the weekly Prime Minister’s Question session goes on too long.

The previously half-hour session has slowly stretched under Bercow in an effort to allow more backbenchers to ask questions, and frequently comes in just shy of an hour.

Bercow himself was accused of having bullied former staff members. He denies the allegations.

All of the candidates except one said they would want to cut PMQs back to around 30 minutes, with Labour’s former interim leader Harman saying the leader of the opposition should have fewer than the current six questions. Only Hillier — the Labour MP and chair of the public accounts committee — said the session should be designated for an hour to hold the government to account.

Feeding time

All of the MPs except three said the rules should be changed to allow female MPs to breastfeed in the House of Commons. Only Bellingham, Leigh and deputy speaker Laing offered an alternative view.

Bellingham said he would only want to allow it in an “absolute emergency” while Laing said: “Breastfeeding in the chamber is not necessary. Been there, done that. They didn’t have maternity leave when I had a baby and was already a member of parliament and if I managed to bring up a healthy child without breastfeeding in the chamber then it can’t be all that difficult.”

Hounding bullies

All the candidates agreed that more should be done to combat the bullying and harassment of those who work in parliament. The so-called “pestminster” scandal erupted in Westminster in the wake of the #MeToo revelations in 2017.

Bercow himself was accused of having bullied former staff members. He denies the allegations.

A number of the candidates accused Bercow of being biased on Brexit.

A report found that the culture in parliament had a “disturbing” and “pervasive” culture of bullying and harassment. A year on, and despite a new complaints system, some of the recommendations in the report are yet to be acted on.

All of the candidates to replace Bercow vowed to take the issue seriously and deliver the final recommendations.

Less Brexit controversy (Yeah right!)

A number of the candidates accused Bercow of being biased on Brexit. Many Euroskeptics were outraged when the speaker allowed MPs to use an emergency debate last month to seize control of Commons business and pass a law blocking a no-deal Brexit. They saw it his latest move to push the Commons rulebook to its limits to thwart Brexit. Vara said Bercow had “tarnished the role of Speaker with his biasedness” and called for the rules to be rewritten to curtail the power of the chair.

Leigh said Bercow was “perceived by large parts of the nation not to be impartial,” adding that his constitutional rule-bending had “upset the whole governance of the nation, it’s basically made us un-governable.”

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