Donald Trump read more

“Not an automatic right”

Britain's Bercow faces backlash after attempting to block Trump from addressing Parliament

Britain’s Bercow faces backlash after attempting to block Trump from addressing Parliament

The Speaker of Britain’s House of Commons set off a political firestorm Monday when he said he would seek to prevent Donald Trump from speaking in Parliament during an upcoming state visit. Speaker John Bercow suggested the new U.S. president’s “racism and sexism” made him unfit to address British lawmakers.

The unprecedented comments by Speaker Bercow sparked fierce criticism that he was overstepping the bounds of his nonpolitical office, and may have jeopardized a bilateral relationship that is critical for Britain as it eyes a post-Brexit future. But leading opposition MPs supported his stance, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn applauding Bercow for standing up for British values and saying Trump’s state visit, due to take place in the summer, should be called off altogether.

“I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.”

Bercow, whose role demands he remain nonpartisan, shocked MPs when he said he would seek to prevent an address from Trump, saying permission to speak in Parliament was “not an automatic right,” but an “earned honor.”

The Speaker is the highest authority in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of Britain’s Parliament, presiding over debates in the house. As one of three “key holders” to Parliament — along with the Speaker of the House of Lords, the British Parliament’s upper chamber, and the Lord Great Chamberlain, who represents the queen — the Speaker must give his permission for visiting dignitaries to address the institution.

“After the imposition of the migrant ban by President Trump, I am even more strongly opposed to an address by President Trump in Westminster Hall,” Bercow said.

“I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.”

Previous U.S. presidents including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan have addressed the British parliament, along with other foreign leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in what is typically a highlight of official visits to the UK. But not all state visits are accompanied by an invitation to address parliament – Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe have both visited Britain without being invited.

Opposition to Trump has been ferocious in the UK

No date has been set for Trump’s state visit, which was announced during British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to Washington  a few weeks ago. Downing Street officials have said it’s too early to say if Trump will be invited to address Parliament during his visit, nor has the White House indicated it is interested in scheduling the engagement.

But the British government’s strong outreach to the Trump administration as it seeks to strengthen the “special relationship” following the vote for Brexit – and perhaps secure a crucial trade deal – has proven highly controversial in the U.K.

May has faced scathing criticism for allying herself so closely and quickly with the divisive president. May was the first international leader to meet the new president after he took office, in a visit during which the pair appeared before cameras walking hand-in-hand around the White House grounds.

Opposition to Trump’s policies has been especially pronounced in the U.K., with tens of thousands marching in the streets in the global Women’s March and to protest the U.S. travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations. And Britain’s Parliament will hold a nonbinding debate on Feb. 20 on downgrading or cancelling Trump’s state visit after nearly 1.85 million Britons signed a petition expressing their opposition. More than 300,000 people have signed an opposing petition saying the state visit should go ahead.

Bercow sparks a heated debate

Bercow’s extraordinary snub drew a swift reaction. Cabinet Minister Sajid Javid, the government’s communities secretary, said that Bercow did not speak for the government.

“The government is very clear: President Trump is the leader of our most important ally, he’s elected fairly and squarely, and it’s manifestly in our national interests that we reach out to him and we work with him, and he visits us in the U.K.,” he told the BBC.

U.K. politician Nigel Farage — widely seen as the architect of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Trump’s closest political ally in the U.K. – said Bercow had insulted the U.S. president and devalued the office of the Speaker.

“I can scarcely believe that the Speaker of the House of Commons doesn’t want him to set foot inside the Palace of Westminster,” Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, told reporters. “This is the most important man in the world. For him to have effectively been accused of being sexist and racist by the Speaker today is the Speaker abusing his position.”

Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi said Bercow had exposed himself “to the accusation of hypocrisy” for opposing Trump but not other leaders such as Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, whose government has a bad human rights record.

But Labour MP Yvette Cooper told the BBC that she believed the Trump case was different.

“This is our closest ally, a country that we have worked with and should continue to work with, that is currently walking away from democratic values, as opposed to us building alliances with countries across the world who we are trying to move toward democracy and towards human rights,” she said. “We should be prepared to make a stand.”

Cover: (Press Association via AP Images)

M-F 7:30PM HBO