John Bercow: Controversial House of Commons speaker John Bercow bows out after a decade

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By Alice Tidey
Britain's Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow in the House of Commons,  Britain, October 29, 201
Britain's Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow in the House of Commons, Britain, October 29, 201   -  Copyright  UK Parliament/Roger Harris/Handout via REUTERS

John Bercow, the well-known speaker of the UK parliament, cried "orderrrr!" at MPs for the final time on Thursday.

The 56-year-old was elected speaker — a powerful role requiring political impartiality — in 2009.

During his decade in the chair, his art of rhetoric and theatricality have seen him go viral, star in many memes, and become one of the country's most recognisable politicians.

But his stint in the role — which involves him presiding over MPs' debates, maintaining order and choosing which parliamentarians can address the chamber — has not been without controversy. 

'A great servant'

British leader Boris Johnson led the tributes on Wednesday during Prime Minister Questions, saying Bercow, an avid tennis fan, had peppered "every part of the chamber with your own thoughts and opinions like some uncontrollable tennis-ball machine".

"Although we may disagree about some of the legislative innovations that you have favoured, there is no doubt in my mind that you have been a great servant to Parliament and to this House of Commons," he added.

The two men have had some tense exchanges in the previous months with Bercow describing Johnson's decision to suspend parliament in early September — widely seen as a move to prevent MPs from holding him to account over his strategy to take the country out of the European Union — as a "constitutional outrage".

"However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country," Bercow's statement also said.

He also denied Johnson a second vote in parliament on the deal he struck with Brussels earlier this month, arguing it would be "repetitive and disorderly".

READ MORE: John Bercow: 'Capable of great things... but he upset a lot of people along the way'

'Standing up for democracy'

Bercow first entered the House of Commons in 1997 as a Conservative MP for Buckingham, south-eastern England. 

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour party, said of Bercow that he has "given real power to backbenchers" as he "vastly expanded the use of urgent questions" and "opened up the number of emergency debates".

"You've stood up for parliament when it has to be stood up for, and we thank you for that," he added.

Ian Blackford, the leader of Scotland's National Party in Westminster, said his colleagues "salute you, Sir, for the way that you have stood up for the democracy of this house."

Fewer than 15 urgent questions — an accelerated procedure that allows all MPs not in the government to put a question to a minister — were brought forward each year in the decade preceding Bercow's election as Speaker, according to the House of Commons Library.

That number shot up during his tenure with more than 70 asked every year since 2015.


But his reach vastly expanded beyond the walls of the House of Commons. According to pollster YouGov, Bercow is the third most popular "other UK public figure", with fans describing him as a good speaker, humourous, admirable, fair and committed.

That's largely in part due to his unique way of booming out and dragging out the word "order" which has inspired countless memes.

But he is also known for his imaginative, verbose put-downs aimed indiscriminately at backbenchers and government members, including prime ministers.

The country's referendum decision to leave the EU boosted his profile further as his role saw him decide which motions and amendments could be put to a vote in a parliament increasingly divided along Remain and Leave lines.

His own impartiality was called into question with Brexiteers criticising him for a "B*llocks to Brexit" sticker seen on his car. To which he replied: "That sticker, on the subject of Brexit, happens to be, affixed to or in the windscreen of, my wife's car. Yes, and I'm sure the honourable gentleman wouldn't suggest for one moment that a wife is somehow the property or chattel of her husband."

Abroad, his stance on a state visit by US President Donald Trump also made headlines. He effectively banned the US leader from addressing lawmakers in Parliament — and honour granted to Barrack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan.

"As far as this place is concerned, I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons," he argued.

Expenses and bullying

But his tenure has not been without other controversies.

He was heavily criticised over his expenses after it was revealed that he had claimed over £31,000 (€35,900) in travel and accommodation expenses in the year to July 2015.

Among the claims that raised the most eyebrows were a £172 (€199) taxi bill for a 1.1-km ride and a £980 (€1,137) receipt for a one-way drive from London to Halifax.

He also found himself at the centre of a bullying scandal with his former private secretary telling the BBC's Newsnight show in May 2018 that Bercow was prone to "over-the-top anger".

"There was a lot of bad language and suddenly his mobile phone, which he'd been holding, was flung n the desk in front of me and broke into a lot of bits," he claimed.

A subsequent report on abuse in Parliament found that there is a "culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed".

Dame Laura Cox, the former judge who authored the report, added that she "find(s) it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior House administration".

But Bercow, who has denied any wrongdoing, refused to step down.