The Guardian view on John Bercow: after Brexit is the time for change | Editorial

The Commons speaker has been a welcome reformer, but his successor must bring fresh energy to ending a bullying culture

Almost exactly a year ago, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Britain’s parliament was rocked by allegations from former employees about bullying and sexual harassment by MPs and senior staff. For a few days last October, it even looked as though the revelations might inflict the same level of damage to politics as was caused by the expenses scandal a decade ago.

Yet the storm passed. Although the Speaker, John Bercow, and the leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, palpably do not get on personally, they promised root-and-branch change. By this summer, a new, independent complaints system, crafted by Ms Leadsom, was up and running, while Dame Laura Cox was commissioned to write a wide-ranging report on the issue. Amid the turmoil over Brexit, many at Westminster may have assumed the job had been done.

Dame Laura’s report, which was published on Monday, explodes any such complacency. Her 155-page findings are a sweeping indictment of the culture and behaviour of a modern parliamentary democracy that struggles in multiple ways to bring itself into the 21st century. The report establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that harassment and bullying by some parliamentary officials and MPs continue in the present day and are attributable, to quote her penultimate paragraph, “to systemic or institutional failings and to a collective ethos in the House that has, over the years, enabled the underlying culture to develop and to persist”.

Dame Laura does not mince her words about how this has been allowed to occur. She found “a culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence”. It is a culture of entitlement to power that has proved adept at the art of covering up such abuses in the past and, Dame Laura suspects, will do so again. “I find 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,” she concludes.

The buck stops with Mr Bercow. He is the man at the top. In his nine years in the Speaker’s chair, he has been a reformer. He has been accessible to the public, spoken up for parliament in the country, and, above all, has stood up for backbenchers against the executive. One of his best innovations has been his readiness to allow the asking of “urgent questions” – on topical issues of the day – at the start of the day’s Commons business. It is ironic that another such question, which he allowed on Tuesday, was the catalyst for a fresh wave of attacks on him in the wake of Dame Laura’s report, which led to well-sourced suggestions that he will step down in 2019.

Mr Bercow has many enemies, especially in the Conservative party of which he was once a rising star. Labour, by contrast, supports him, as do the opposition parties generally, not least because they suspect he will not be the government’s poodle when the Commons gets its decisive say on Brexit. This is an immensely important consideration. But there is more at stake here than party politics, even on the most important question facing Britain.

Mr Bercow is not a modern Nero. But his time is nearly up, and parliament will need fresh leaders once the Brexit votes are over. He is right to stay on for the big Brexit showdowns, when he may prove vital to saving the country from a disaster. But his speakership is on probation now, and it is right that he stands down at the end of this parliamentary session next summer.



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