The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has apologised to his counterpart in the Lords, Norman Fowler, for unilaterally saying he did not think Donald Trump should be allowed to address parliament during the upcoming state visit.
Lord Fowler said the longstanding convention was that both speakers should agree on whether foreign leaders on state visits should address parliament.
“Yesterday in the Commons, Mr Bercow said that he was opposed to the president speaking,” Fowler said in a statement to peers. “I should make it clear that I was not consulted on that decision or its timing.“However, the Speaker contacted me this morning. He told me that while he maintained his view on the issue he was generally sorry for failing to consult with me. Obviously, I accepted that apology.”
Earlier, several MPs warned that Bercow put the historic neutrality of his role at risk with his intervention on Monday to say Trump was unfit to speak at Westminster Hall because of parliament’s opposition “to racism and to sexism”.
Bercow defended himself to the Commons on Tuesday, saying he was “commenting on a matter that does fall within the remit of the chair”, but his counterpart in the Lords offered a different view.
Fowler, who was a member of Margaret Thatcher’s government, said he would not express a view on what should happen during Trump’s visit later this year. But he did stress his own longstanding work on equalities issues.
“Allow me to say that I have spent the last 30 years campaigning against prejudice and discrimination, particularly for the rights of LGBT people and those with HIV/Aids,” he said.
In the future, however, there was an argument for changing the rules so that neither speaker could “effectively veto” visiting leaders addressing parliament, Fowler said. There should for now be “some effort to reach consensus and a serious discussion on what the decision should be”.
Bercow told MPs on Monday afternoon that he had been against the idea of Trump speaking in Westminster Hall and that recent policies, such as Trump’s order banning the entry of people from seven predominantly Muslim nations, had left him even more determined to block the move.
He said: “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.”
Bercow’s comments prompted a series of Conservative MPs to criticise him, with the government also making plain its displeasure.
“Anyone who knows the Speaker will know that he speaks his mind. But he doesn’t speak for the government,” the communities secretary, Sajid Javid, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“The government is very clear: President Trump is the leader of our most important ally, he’s elected fairly and squarely, and it’s manifestly in our national interests that we reach out to him and we work with him, and he visits us in the UK.”
John Whittingdale, a former culture secretary, said Bercow was seeking “as much publicity as possible” and should have instead talked privately to Theresa May.
He told Sky News: “It was a performance, it was John Bercow playing to the gallery and I think it was damaging to the national interest. I think it is regrettable that he did it.”
May’s spokesman avoided direct comment on Bercow’s words when asked about the subject. “What John Bercow suggests to parliament is a matter for parliament,” he said. “What I will set out is our position, which is that we’ve extended this invitation to the president and we look forward to receiving him later this year.”
Bercow “has no idea whether he will be speaking for a majority of the House of Commons, and this is why Speakers do not express their opinion”, said Crispin Blunt, the Conservative MP who chairs the foreign affairs committee. “That’s the entire point, otherwise they can’t remain neutral and above the political fray.”
Addressing MPs on Tuesday, Bercow sais he realised some people disagreed with his opinion, but that he was “honestly and honourably seeking to discharge my responsibilities to the House”.
He said: “The house has always understood that the chair has a role in these matters. If you disagree with the means of my exercising it, that is one point, or if you don’t always approve of my manner … so be it.”
But another Conservative MP, Nadhim Zahawi, said Bercow risked being seen as hypocritical for refusing to allow Trump to speak at Westminster when he had raised no objections to appearances by the likes of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
Zahawi has previously criticised Trump over the travel ban. The Baghdad-born MP initially believed the president’s executive order would stop him travelling to the US.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Zahawi said Bercow should explain to the Commons why Trump would be barred while he had welcomed visitors including Xi and the Emir of Kuwait.
“I think the Speaker was unwise to speak out,” Zahawi said. “He prides himself on his neutrality, to speak for the whole of parliament, and I think to become the story is a bad place to be.”
Bercow “opens himself up to the accusation of hypocrisy”, Zahawi said, noting that many MPs were unhappy with China’s repression in Tibet, while Kuwait barred Britons with dual Israeli nationality.
Speaking later on Today, the leading Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper said she agreed with Bercow, arguing that the case of Trump was different from those such as Xi.
“This is our closest ally, a country that we have worked with and should continue to work with, that is currently walking away from democratic values, as opposed to us building alliances with countries across the world who we are trying to move towards democracy and towards human rights,” she said.
“We could talk about problems with China, we could talk about problems with a whole load of countries, and you would be right to do so. But none of this, I think, gets away from the fact that what is happening in the United States is unique in western democracy and should be deeply disturbing for all of us. We should be prepared to make a stand.”