Friday, February 28, 2020
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The humbling of Harriet

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EARLIER this year the Oxford English Dictionary added a number of descriptive Scottish words, including bigsie for ‘having an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance; arrogant, pretentious, conceited’. At the time, I identified ‘the exemplar of these unattractive traits being the incumbent Speaker, who henceforth shall be known as Bigsie Bercow’. 

During the past decade, and especially since the 2016 referendum, the outgoing Speaker turned the House of Commons into the John Bercow Show. As a send-off for Bigsie, it therefore seems appropriate to repeat the same instruction with which Bercow, ahead of September’s proroguing of parliament, concluded his haughty harangue of junior minister Andrew Stephenson: ‘Get out, man – you will not be missed.’

During the hustings to replace Bercow, the wittiest and most impressive speech came from Chris Bryant. Without directly referring to the myriad faults of the outgoing Speaker, the Labour Member for Rhondda neatly highlighted the many ways in which the diminutive Bercow, ahem, fell short. Bryant’s summary of what is required to ‘do this properly’ included: ‘A speaker who has absolutely no favourites . . . who believes in standing by the rules . . . somebody who is completely impartial . . . an umpire, not a player’.

While a MP, in 2003 Bryant notoriously advertised his availability on Gaydar by posing in his underpants and using the frankest of language. Yet even with that indecorous history, Chris Bryant would have been a more dignified occupant of the Speaker’s chair than was John Bercow.

In his pitch, Chris Bryant also admitted to having ‘by my bedside’ Erskine May – which, for the avoidance of doubt, is the ‘bible of parliamentary procedure’ and not the name of Bryant’s same-sex partner. Although his bedtime swotting and seductive speech helped Bryant do better than expected – he reached the final two and received 213 votes – the contest deservedly was won by Sir Lindsay Hoyle.

Sir Lindsay will be much more understated than John Bercow – and thank heavens for that. As Deputy Speaker, already he has displayed admirable composure and resolve, most recently by blocking opposition parties’ opportunistic and cynical attempt to have 16- and 17-year-olds, plus all EU residents, voting in next month’s general election. 

In his acceptance speech, Hoyle declared: ‘The House will change, but it will change for the better.’  Being rid of bumptious Bercow, the Commons has immediately improved.

The female who advanced furthest in the contest was Conservative Eleanor Laing, who made the final three and received 127 votes. The process of electing the new Speaker therefore had the bonus of being a hilarious humiliation for Harriet Harman.

Having garnered only 72 votes in the opening round, support for Harman then slumped to just 59 before she withdrew. The humbling of Harriet was a deserved punishment for her shameless shtick: ‘We’ve now got more than 200 women members of the House of Commons . . . If we put a man in the chair it will render all those women invisible.’ 

This divisive hyperbole was all Hattie had to offer. Now the longest serving female MP, the so-called Mother of the House sought to prioritise parliament’s daughters over its sons, Harman’s sole message having been: ‘It’s time for another woman.’ 

To which her fellow MPs gave the emphatic rejoinder: ‘It certainly won’t be you, Harriet.’

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Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver is an accountant who lives in East Lothian.

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