PM backs investigation into Bercow"s alleged "stupid woman" remark
Theresa May has said there should be an investigation if a complaint is made over allegations that John Bercow, the House of Commons Speaker, called Andrea Leadsom a “stupid woman” in heated exchanges after prime minister’s questions.
The prime minister’s spokesman said: “We’ve seen the alleged remarks and clearly the prime minister thinks they are unacceptable. And if an official complaint is made, it should be properly investigated.”
But MPs have said the Commons system of investigation is too flawed to do an effective job.
Although any complaint can trigger an investigation by the parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, her report has to be submitted to the committee on standards.
On Tuesday, MPs on the committee blocked an inquiry into historical allegations of bullying by Bercow by three votes to two. The committee is unique because it has lay members, but they do not have a vote. It is understood these members unanimously supported an investigation.
Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, has been spearheading work to improve the system for reporting and investigating complaints. She is said to believe the committee’s decision underlines the need to revoke MPs’ power to decide on sanctions.
In the Commons on Wednesday, Bercow was overheard swearing under his breath after he criticised Leadsom for arranging government statements that took up time intended for a Labour debate on Grenfell.
An opposition MP told Leadsom what they had heard. She is understood not to want to raise a complaint personally and so far no one has lodged a complaint with the standards commissioner.
If a complaint were lodged, it is thought this could allow Stone to investigate the historical allegations of bullying, despite the committee’s move to block it.
The Speaker’s office did not deny that Bercow made the remark. “Strong and differing views” had been expressed in the chamber on an “unusual and controversial day”, it said, adding: “The Speaker treats his colleagues with respect and strives at every turn to facilitate the House of Commons.”
The historical allegations of bullying were made earlier this year in a BBC Newsnight investigation. They involved two senior members of Commons staff, who had each been Bercow’s private secretary after he was elected Speaker.
Kate Emms allegedly developed post-traumatic stress disorder after working for him, and Angus Sinclair took compulsory early retirement. He said Bercow had demeaned and physically intimidated him, once smashing a mobile phone on his desk. Later, another former senior parliamentary figure, David Leakey, criticised Bercow. Bercow has emphatically denied allegations that he bullied Sinclair and Emms.
The allegations emerged after Leadsom had finished her inquiry into overhauling the complaints system in the Commons. She has made no secret of the fact that she wanted the committee set up to investigate complaints to be given the power to examine recent allegations about past incidents.
Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP who was on the committee and is part of the steering group overseeing reform, said: “If there isn’t urgent reform to the standards committee there will be a massive outcry.
“For as long as MPs are both judge and jury we are never going to have a fair and independent complaints system – it urgently needs to change so there is a proper way to deal with allegations of this nature. otherwise we are letting down Commons staff and ending up with trial by media which risks wronging everyone.”
Bercow, a former Conservative MP, has had an increasingly stormy relationship with MPs and ministers, mainly those on the Tory side of the house, since he was elected in 2009.
James Duddridge, one of his most outspoken critics, challenged Labour MPs over their support for Bercow. “Labour can’t pretend to be a decent party that cares about issues of sexism and bullying and procedure while supporting him, even if he is a pain for the government and helpful to them,” he said. “There’s a bigger picture here. He’s normalising bullying.”
Bercow’s detractors feel he is immune to criticism because of the unique authority of his office. The Speaker is the champion of backbenchers, and of the principle of government accountability to the Commons.