Theresa May believes it was “unacceptable” for the John Bercow, the House of Commons Speaker, to call Andrea Leadsom a “stupid woman” and thinks the incident should be investigated if a formal complaint is made, Downing Street has said.
Bercow was overheard swearing under his breath after he lambasted Leadsom, the leader of the house, for arranging important government statements that took up time that was intended for a Labour debate on Grenfell.
The events took place on Wednesday afternoon but emerged on Thursday.
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.”
However, when asked whether May thought Bercow should step down, the spokesman said: “The Speaker is elected by MPs so questions like that are for parliament.”
The Speaker’s office is not denying that he made the remarks. A statement acknowledged it had been a difficult day. “Strong and differing views” had been expressed in the chamber on an “unusual and controversial day” in the Commons, it said.
Leadsom is understood not to want to raise a complaint herself but it is open to anyone with any recent complaint to ask the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone directly to launch an inquiry.
It is thought such a complaint could allow Stone to investigate historical allegations of bullying too, which otherwise have to be approved by the Commons committee on standards.
On Tuesday an appeal to investigate bullying dating from 2009-11 was blocked by MPs on the committee. The lay members wanted the claims investigated, but the MPs’ votes were decisive.
Leadsom is understood not to have heard the comment but to have been told of it by someone who was not normally critical of the Speaker.
She has often crossed Bercow during her campaign to improve the protection of the rights of everyone employed by MPs and the House of Commons.
Leadsom has made no secret of the fact that she wanted the new committee set up to investigate complaints to be given the power to examine recent allegations about incidents that had occurred in the past.
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.
This year serious allegations of bullying were made against him by two senior members of Commons staff, who had each been his private secretary in the years after he was elected.
Kate Emms and Angus Sinclair complained that his behaviour had made it impossible for them to do their jobs. Later, another former senior parliamentary figure, David Leakey, the newly retired Back Rod, also criticised Bercow.
On Wednesday, the Speaker strongly criticised Leadsom, who was a few feet away from him on the government benches. Staring at the minister, who could be seen sitting tensely and looking away, he attacked the conduct of government business for which she was responsible.
He said: “This is an undesirable state of affairs and, if it were to happen on further occasions, a great many honourable and right honourable members, not to mention interested parties in the opposition day debates outside the chamber, would view it, frankly, as an abuse.
“I hope that that message is heard loudly and clearly on the government frontbench, at the highest level, by the people in particular by whom it needs to be heard.”
On Thursday, Leadsom appeared to join in the exchanges when she told an MP during business questions complaining about another apparent breach of privilege that no one should be bullied.
She said: “I completely agree with the right honorable gentleman’s basic premise that nobody in this place should be bullied and, where we believe that there is wrongdoing, we should be free to investigate it.”
Bercow’s supporters believe he is the victim of a sustained campaign by Conservative MPs who believe he undermines the government. Many Labour MPs regard him as an outstanding supporter of the rights of MPs against the government and regard the criticisms of him as politically motivated.