The Bercow bullying allegations matter far beyond Westminster | Gaby Hinsliff

In any walk of life, the accused must be confronted – no matter how important they are. Parliament should lead by example

Wherever there is a scandal, there is so often a blind spot. The ability even of good people to look away, sometimes in pursuit of what seems to be the greater good, echoes through the findings of official inquiries down the ages. Complaints get ignored, tearful people swept under the carpet, because the accused is too difficult to confront or too important to lose. They might be guilty, they might not, but a slightly shamefaced consensus emerges – that now isn’t really the right time to ask.

And it doesn’t just happen in big institutions. It happens in ordinary offices, whenever the senior partner is considered more valuable to the firm than the secretaries who keep quitting in suspicious circumstances, so it’s easier just to get new secretaries than to ask questions. It happens in elite sport, when fans don’t want to hear what their heroes do off the pitch so long as they keep winning. And it looks worryingly as if something similar may have happened with the allegations now piling up against John Bercow.

The former Speaker of the House of Commons has long been accused of bullying and intimidation behind closed doors, though he categorically denies it. His former private secretary, Angus Sinclair, claimed to have been undermined, sworn at and physically intimidated; and Sinclair’s successor, Kate Emms, was reportedly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after less than a year in the job. This week another ex-colleague, former Black Rod David Leakey, accused the Speaker of having “brutalised” his staff and said he should not be granted the peerage for which Jeremy Corbyn has apparently recommended him.

The list goes on, although it’s impossible to know the truth of such allegations without a formal inquiry. All we’re left with is an uneasy sense that this isn’t justice, for either side, and there are many unanswered questions about how we got here. Would the Speaker have survived intense public pressure to resign – or at least face formal and specific investigations – after these allegations first surfaced back in 2018, if hopes of stopping Brexit hadn’t rested so heavily on him at the time?

Everyone knew, after all, that if he was forced out then parliament would be lucky to find another Speaker so fearless or creative. Everyone knew too that the stakes couldn’t be higher for the country. And the blunt truth is that many remain supporters, in and out of Westminster, were willing to overlook quite a lot for that. When Labour MPs stuck by him, doubts were swallowed, perhaps partly because many remainers were suspicious of the role pro-Brexit press and politicians played in demanding his scalp. But only this week did it become obvious how much that episode has damaged parliament’s credibility. If it cannot lead by example, then it is weakened when sitting in judgment on other institutions’ blind spots.

Former House of Commons speaker John Bercow
‘Bercow didn’t stop Brexit, but he helped ensure parliament wasn’t steamrollered into it. If he had his flaws, so do most people in public life.’ Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP

This week, MPs debated a government-commissioned report into the failure to stop the disgraced breast cancer surgeon Ian Paterson. The litany of failures echoes so many previous inquiries: a doctor who felt above reproach; colleagues whose concerns were dismissed; managers jolted into action far too late. For years, Paterson dangerously under-treated some patients, performing what he called “cleavage-sparing mastectomies” that left excessive amounts of tissue behind, while grotesquely over-treating others who didn’t actually need surgery. Patients who came to him worried about a lump were told in the starkest terms that they would die without an operation, that their children would be motherless, and that it was so urgent they should pay to see him privately if they could rather than waiting for surgery on the NHS. One poor woman had seven operations in 10 years, only to find out later that there was no proof she had the pre‑cancerous condition Paterson had described.

Yet he was only suspended eight years after the first concerns were raised by colleagues. The inquiry team concluded that both the private and NHS hospitals employing Paterson displayed a “notable absence of curiosity” about their hot-shot surgeon, known locally as the one to whom other doctors sent their wives. The man now serving 20 years in prison for wounding with intent was, they noted, said to be one of the biggest earners at the private Spire hospitals in Birmingham – while at the city’s Heart of England NHS hospital he had a reputation for being domineering, and difficult when challenged.

But what does any of this have to do with Bercow, who, even if he was guilty of everything his critics say and more, would obviously not be in the same league as an Paterson? Nothing, on the surface, yet Tuesday’s parliamentary debate on the disgraced doctor makes uncomfortable reading for those with Leakey’s words ringing in their ears. MP after MP gravely agreed with the public health minister Nadine Dorries that whistleblowers must be heard across the public sector, that managers must investigate without fear or favour, and that organisations should never close ranks just because it’s awkward. They’re right, of course. But at the moment parliament feels a long way from having any moral authority.

Bercow was a champion of parliamentary independence and a reforming Speaker whose family-friendly approach helped make political careers possible for parents of small children. He didn’t stop Brexit, but helped ensure parliament wasn’t steamrollered into it. If he had his flaws, so do most people in public life.

Yet to ennoble him without first getting to the truth of allegations about his behaviour towards his staff, whatever that truth might be, sends all the wrong signals both about parliament’s ability to set the highest example, and public willingness to look away when it suits us. It should not be too late, even now, to put the record straight.

• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist


Gaby Hinsliff

The GuardianTramp

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