UK Speaker John Bercow champions 'dissident minority' in Brexit debate

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CNN's Bianca Nobilo sat down in a rare interview with John Bercow, Speaker for the United Kingdom's House of Commons, to talk about the unique challenges facing a speaker throughout such a divided time in British politics.

Posted: Feb 1, 2019 3:30 AM
Updated: Feb 1, 2019 3:30 AM

The Speaker of Britain's House of Commons insists he's a neutral arbiter of the rancorous Brexit debate, even as he acknowledges championing "dissident" voices in the bruising parliamentary battles over the UK's departure from the EU.

In a rare media interview, John Bercow told CNN that it was not his job to "prescribe one route or another" as Prime Minister Theresa May struggles to get her Brexit deal through a divided Parliament. But he said his job was to give a voice to rank-and-file MPs, even if that caused trouble for the government.

Some hardline Brexiteer MPs say Bercow is biased against them, and feel that he opposes Britain's departure from the EU.

But Bercow, taking CNN on a tour of his historic apartments in the Palace of Westminster, said a good Speaker would pay no attention to "moaning" government ministers.

Bercow described his role as more of a facilitator of the views of ordinary lawmakers. "In grappling with the biggest current issue facing us, Brexit: No resolution of the matter has yet been attained. It is a concern and it isn't something that the Speaker can determine. The Speaker can to try and help the House to decide on such issues and give it the freedom to breathe, if I can put it that way."

This role was particularly important, he said, as the current UK government does not enjoy an overall majority in the House of Commons. "In circumstances where there is a minority government the Speaker still has and perhaps even more so to be conscious of the need to give the House as a whole the chance to express its will."

Bercow has been accused of upending parliamentary procedure by allowing certain motions laid down by the government to be amended. He acknowledged it was a "challenge" to select the right amendments for debate.

"There is a limited amount of time, you can't chose every topic," Bercow said, adding that he listened to his advisers, the clerks of the House of Commons. "Does an amendment, let us say, have a large number of signatories? And if so, that might make it worthy of selection. Does it have cross party support? As you would say in the United States, can a member reach across the aisle?"

But he told CNN that he was not motivated by a desire to favor any particular outcome.

"It's not for the Speaker, let's say in the context of Brexit, to prescribe one route or another, and I think the record shows I've always been keen to give a voice to the dissident minority in the House of Commons rather than in any sense to side with the majority," he said.

Bercow's penchant for florid language has made him a recognized face as Brexit debates make headlines around the world. "Order, order," he yells over bellowing MPs. He often criticizes lawmakers for "chuntering from a sedentary position" -- meaning they heckle while seated.

"The Prime Minister must -- and WILL -- be heard," he often complains during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions. And most memorably, he yells at the top of his voice to announce a vote: "DIVISION! CLEAR THE LOBBIES!"

Bercow told CNN he prefers to deploy humor to keep control of the most boisterous debates. "If people are determined to make a huge noise, if there is an absolute cacophony, it's not possible for one person to overcome it," he said, saying it was important to "be a little patient, and combine carrot and stick."

He likened his role to one of a referee at a soccer match. "I'm a regular at my club with my son, season-ticket holder at Arsenal. There are 60,000 people in crowd, who think they know better than the referee." The Speaker is in a similar position, he said.

One innovation introduced by Bercow is the granting of "urgent questions" or UQs -- forcing government ministers to come to the House of Commons at short notice to answer questions on controversial issues of the day.

"Very often governments find that very inconvenient and some complain. The best ministers don't, the best ministers in the Labour government, Jack Straw being a very good example, never complained if I granted a UQ to him."

"In more recent years somebody like [Conservative] Michael Gove is an immensely capable minister... never complains if an urgent question is granted. He's adroit, he's dexterous, he knows his responsibility and he can look after himself. There are some ministers who complain, but it is up to the Speaker, frankly to stand up for the rights of the House of Commons institutionally and those individual members individually."

Even before the Brexit debate, Bercow has been a controversial figure. He has been accused of bullying -- claims he denies -- and a report into the culture in the House of Commons said claims of harassment were not properly dealt with.

Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons -- the minister in charge of government business -- says he once called her a "stupid woman." He denied the allegation when Leadsom raised it with him in the House of Commons.

Bercow did not address the issue in his interview with CNN.

Speaking generally, he said he was immune to criticism from the government benches. "If the Speaker is the sort of person who is going to be cowed or intimidated by a ministerial rant or a letter sent by way of complaint, well that person isn't fit to be Speaker. So I hope I always treat people with respect but I'm not going to be intimidated by some moaning minister in any government."

Off-camera, Bercow named his favorite American was Martin Luther King. On Bercow's official crest -- designed when he became Speaker -- he includes the motto "All are equal" -- in English, not Latin, as well the rainbow as symbol of equality and pink triangles denoting his championing of LGBT rights.

When he was elected Speaker in 2009 -- then a Conservative MP -- Bercow thought Parliament looked "male, pale and stale." He saw his job as to preserve traditions but also to bring it up to date to better reflect modern society.

Being Speaker used to be a dangerous job -- seven of his predecessors have been executed. A 5ft 5in tall he is often referred to as the shortest Speaker. Bercow pointed out that three Speakers were shorter than him -- but only after they were beheaded.

After being Speaker for almost a decade and re-elected by his fellow MPs four times, how long will he remain? "Not indefinitely." There was "no fixed plan" for his departure, he said.

In centuries past the Speaker could -- and did -- go on to become Prime Minister, but that is not a career path followed by recent incumbents. Bercow said he is looking for role that would be fun -- educational in character, perhaps in the charity or sport sectors. He will have to earn a living for some time for his wife and three children.

How has Bercow changed? "If I'm really honest with you I'd say when I started I was abrasive and not very good at using humor, and some of my critics would say that to this day."

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