He’s done it. He ruined everything. Or has he saved it? It’s hard to tell.
As the Brexit saga continues to unfold, full of high drama, it was the turn of the House of Commons speaker, John Bercow, to take the stage as this week’s main character.
On Monday, he ruled that Britain’s embattled prime minister could not bring her deal back to the Commons to be voted on by MPs for the third time. He said Theresa May would have to “substantially” change the deal before this would be allowed.
It was a grenade thrown straight into the heart of the Brexit crisis. But whether you love him or loathe him for his intervention, the view is very different from Europe, which this loud man with messy hair is becoming something of a cult figure.
On the continent, he’s seen both as comedic relief thanks to his vowel-bending shouts of “Order!”, and as the man who might stop the UK from leaving the European Union after all. All while being entertainingly smug about it.
Bercow’s rise to fame beyond Britain’s borders first came on January 16. On the day May faced down a vote of confidence in her leadership, he shouted himself viral.
The German weekly Die Zeit praised “the power of the eighth dwarf” and marvelled that Bercow now “personified parliament”.
The French magazine Le Figaro wrote that Bercow would discipline the members of parliament “like a pack of rowdy dunces”.
The Portuguese newspaper Publico echoed that “he does not use a hammer, but it seems like he does.”
The Polish newspaper Wyborcza even dared to ask: “Will the speaker of the House of Commons save the United Kingdom from disaster?”
More recently, the Spanish newspaper El Pais called Bercow the “guardian of order”, who “brought to Westminster the agility, transparency and modernity that a declining institution needed since World War II.”
Like it or not, Bercow has gained stardom. He is depicted outside of the UK as a competent if eccentric political figure – and an antidote to the greyish antics of May and the indecisiveness of Jeremy Corbyn.
But he is not an uncontroversial figure. Bercow has credibly been accused of bullying his employees. In an April 2018 interview with BBC Newsnight Angus Sinclair, who worked for Bercow as private secretary in 2009 and 2010, said that he had faced angry outbursts and physical intimidation by his former boss. Newsnight also reported that Sinclair’s successor Kate Emms had been diagnosed with a post-traumatic stress disorder after only one year on the job.
A few months after the interview, in October, an inquiry listed 200 complaints about bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment in Westminster. Dame Laura Cox, who led the inquiry, suggested that Bercow among others should consider his position. He didn’t.
There are also accusations of partisanship against him by both Brexiteers and a government frustrated by procedural delays.
Many suggest that Bercow – who is meant to be politically neutral in his role of speaker – is a Remainer. Indeed, in February 2017 he told a group of university students that he had voted Remain, though he insisted afterwards that he remained impartial at work. Later, when Tory MP Adam Holloway confronted him in parliament about a bumper sticker on his car (“Don’t blame me, I voted Remain”). Bercow said the sticker belongs to his wife.
Then there’s the not-so-private feud between the speaker and the prime minister to consider. After May pushed the first vote on her Brexit deal from December to January, Bercow called her “deeply discourteous”. And by disallowing her a third vote on her Brexit deal, he has dealt her a serious blow.
But this is all but glossed over by many Europeans, and the allegations against Bercow are an afterthought for two reasons.
The first is that parliamentary debates in Britain were not a hot topic in the European news – until they became everyday struggles over deal or no-deal. The theatrics of it all suddenly became intriguing (someone stole a golden mace!), and Bercow, at the centre of it all, rose to fame. Not because anybody cared about his political views or alleged misdemeanours, but because he wears funny ties and continuously shouts a word into the Brexit void that is the perfect antagonism of the current political proceedings in Britain: “Order!”
The second reason his track record isn’t being interrogated is because pro-European politicians, economists, scientists and journalists deem him a possible way out of the Brexit shambles. Commentators who are fed up with endless partisanship and party infighting see him as a neutral force of reason – or at least a reasonable force of neutrality.
So whether you think he’s a force for good, or a vandal at the heart of the political process, there’s no doubt about his new role – he’s become entertainment for the European masses.