LONDON (Reuters) - The speaker of Britain’s House of Commons threw Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans into further turmoil this week by ruling that she could not put her divorce deal to a new vote unless it was resubmitted in fundamentally different form.
Below is an explanation of the speaker’s role in parliament, and information on the current speaker, John Bercow.
The speaker of parliament’s lower chamber, the House of Commons, chairs debates, calling members of parliament to speak and keeping order. He or she can ask lawmakers to be quiet so members can be heard, direct lawmakers to withdraw their comments, and suspend lawmakers who are deliberately disobedient.
The speaker is the highest authority of the House of Commons and is required to remain politically impartial. Therefore he or she is not a member of a political party while in office. The speaker also represents the House of Commons to the monarch.
Speakers are elected by secret ballot. They do not take part in debates or votes in parliament, except in the event of a tie, when the convention is that they cast the deciding vote.
The speaker stands in national elections but is traditionally not opposed by the major parties.
John Bercow, 56, is the 157th speaker of the House of Commons. He was elected on June 22, 2009, after 12 years as a Conservative member of parliament.
The grandson of Jewish immigrants from Romania, he went to school in north London and was a keen tennis player. He is still an avid fan and regularly mentions his admiration of Switzerland’s Roger Federer during debates.
Bercow studied government at the University of Essex, and as a young Conservative activist was a member of the right-wing Monday Club. He has since been quoted as saying his membership of the group was “utter madness”.
His move to a far more socially liberal position even prompted a rumor that he was going to defect to the Labour Party. His wife, Sally, a former Conservative member, now supports Labour.
He has said that he voted “Remain” in the 2016 referendum on EU membership.
Bercow has gained a reputation as a reformer and modernizer.
He abandoned the traditional speaker’s robes, knee breeches and tights in favor of a simple gown over a business suit, and has ended the requirement for Commons clerks to wear wigs, saying it would “convey to the public a marginally less stuffy and forbidding image of this Chamber at work”.
He has also overseen a change in the sitting hours of parliament to make them more family-friendly, turned one of parliament’s many bars into a nursery for the children of lawmakers and staff, and even invited lawmakers to bring their young babies into the chamber during votes.
Bercow has made it his business to assert the power of parliament, reviving the little-used “Urgent Question” procedure, which allows lawmakers to request that a minister come to answer questions on an important issue.
“On more than 570 occasions over the last nine-and-a-half years, I have seen fit to grant urgent questions ... so that the government can be legitimately questioned, probed, scrutinized, challenged and held to account,” he said on Monday.
In May last year, a committee of members of parliament voted against launching an investigation into allegations of bullying by Bercow, which his office rejected.
In October, Bercow resisted pressure to step down after an independent report found the House of Commons had allowed a culture of bullying and sexual harassment to thrive, and said its top officials might need to be replaced to restore confidence. Labour lawmaker Margaret Beckett dismissed calls for him to go, saying that “the constitutional future of this country ... trumps bad behavior”.
In February 2017, Bercow said he was “strongly opposed” to U.S. President Donald Trump addressing parliament during a planned state visit to Britain.
“Our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations,” he said in parliament, to applause from opposition Labour lawmakers.
Brexit legal advice
In December 2018, Bercow helped force the publication of the legal advice that the government had commissioned on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, by ruling there was “an arguable case” that the government had acted in contempt of parliament.
Brexit next steps
In January, Bercow angered many pro-Brexit lawmakers by allowing one of their pro-EU colleagues to seek to force the government to come back to parliament to set out its next steps within three days of its deal being rejected.
“The uncomfortable conclusion ... is that many of us will now have an unshakeable conviction that the referee of our affairs, not least because you made public your opinion and your vote on the issue of Brexit, is no longer neutral,” pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker Crispin Blunt, said at the time.
Bercow refused to deny reports that he had ignored the advice of parliament’s clerks, saying: “If we were guided only by precedent, manifestly nothing in our procedures would ever change.”
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Kevin Liffey