House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has announced that he will stand down as Speaker on October 31, or sooner if an election is called before that date.
Elected as Buckingham MP in 1997, the Speaker’s wry humour and typical forthright style gained him many fans both in and out of the Commons – but he is also known as one of the strongest voices in parliament for LGBT+ equality.
Although the holder of the office of Speaker is required to be politically independent, Bercow repeatedly stood up for LGBT+ rights during his decade in the prominent role and his resignation will come as a blow to LGBT+ advocates.
In 2002 he famously defied a three-line Conservative whip to vote in favour of allowing adoption for unmarried or same-sex couples.
The party line was that such a reform would be against children’s interests, but Bercow instead chose to align with Labour on the vote, later resigning as shadow work and pensions minister in protest.
In 2009, he spoke out in favour of holding civil partnerships at the Palace of Westminster, saying: “So far as civil partnerships are concerned, I feel very strongly that this is a matter of equity and justice.”
He has said he feels a duty to campaign on behalf of LGBT+ people, and in 2011 he helped launch two LGBT+ charities – Diversity Role Models, which is aimed at tackling homophobic bullying in schools, and Kaleidoscope Trust, a nonprofit organisation that campaigns for LGBT+ people abroad.
Later that year he added rainbows, pink triangles and the words “All are equal” to his official coat of arms to reflect his ongoing support of LGBT+ rights. The coat of arms now forms part of the Parliamentary Art Collection.
In 2014 he used the opportunity of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow to call for an end to the “shameful” criminalisation of homosexuality in Commonwealth countries.
Bercow spoke at the first PinkNews Awards in 2013 and at several other PinkNews events thereafter. In 2017 he was presented with a PinkNews ally award in recognition of his support for the LGBT+ community.
At the 2018 PinkNews awards he gave his “most explicit and unequivocal statement of support” for LGBT+ rights, declaring that they “must trump” religious freedom.
He said: “I respect people’s rights to adhere to and profess their faith, but for me, where there is a clash between somebody’s adherence to faith on the one hand and the acknowledgement of and demonstration of respect for human rights, the latter has to trump the former.
“If there are people who take a different view, no doubt they will profess it, but that is my absolutely clear sense.
“The rights of LGBT people of this country and of such people around the world are human rights and need to be acknowledged as such.”
He has also condemned the media “muddying the water” on transgender people by peddling anti-trans messages “under the guise of trying to protect other people’s rights.”
Earlier this year he waded into the ongoing debate over LGBT-inclusive education in schools, declaring: “You can’t appease bigots and homophobes.”
He told the House: “In my experience as a Member of Parliament for more than 20 years, I often find that when people say, ‘We haven’t been properly consulted,’ what they really mean is, ‘You haven’t done what I told you to do.’”
Bercow’s resignation comes after the Tories announced they were planning to oust him as Speaker by opposing him in his Buckingham constituency at the next election – a breach of long-standing Parliamentary convention.
In light of this challenge Bercow made the decision to step down, announcing on Monday, September 9: “I have concluded that the least disruptive and most democratic course of action would be for me to stand down at the close of business on Thursday, October 31.”
He was met with a standing ovation from MPs as he tearfully declared that serving as Speaker had been “the greatest honour of my professional life”.