John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, has got himself in hot water after comparing Esther McVey, the Minister for Employment, to a washing machine. In one of his characteristic interventions, he reproved her for going on too long: “I am reminded of the feeling when one thinks the washing machine will stop – but it does not.”
He was criticised by other MPs for patronising rudeness, which was fair enough. It was patronising and rude. Worst of all, it was unfunny. However, let us not get carried away. Mr Bercow has been an excellent reforming chair of the House of Commons since his election in 2009. He has been a fierce defender of backbench rights, seeking to give as many MPs as possible the chance to speak on important occasions, and he has done more than any of his recent predecessors to insist that ministers should come to the House to answer questions. He may not be popular among his Conservative colleagues, but it is a good thing that the Speaker is not seen as a creature of the senior governing party. True, he has been largely ineffective in keeping order during Prime Minister’s Questions, the most visible parliamentary occasion. His attempts to remind MPs that their rowdiness tends to lower politicians in the esteem of the voters succeed only in sounding pious. But it is hard to see how anyone could impose better order on such a highly charged political joust. The Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives ejects members frequently, but it seems to make little difference.
On the whole, Mr Bercow does a good job in a difficult position. He is a champion of democracy, who has shown a willingness to update the ancient traditions of his office for the modern age. But he should leave the jokes to others.
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