John Bercow is a controversial Speaker. Is he just what parliament needs?by James Macintyre / July 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Sally and John Bercow. He stresses they are not “joined at the hip”
The Speaker of the House of Commons is microwaving a spaghetti bolognese for lunch. Minutes earlier, he was chairing a boisterous session of prime minister’s questions, in which he rebuked David Cameron for failing to respond to the opposition leader. “Let us focus on an answer to the question, or we will move on,” he said, interrupting Cameron. “I call Mr Ed Miliband!”
We are in Speaker’s House, next to Big Ben, at the heart of the parliamentary estate, where John Bercow lives with his wife Sally and their three young children, aged three, five and seven. The Speaker and his wife sometimes entertain friends over sushi and drinks—although both are teetotal—in the lavishly decorated state rooms, before going up two floors to the family apartment. Their compact and modern living quarters are on the same floor as the Speaker’s researcher’s office. There is a bell in the hall, instructing you to ring once for staff and twice for the Speaker.
“It would be absurd to say it is ordinary living,” says Bercow. “It is ordinary living!” retorts his wife Sally, dressed in baggy sweater and leggings. She’s teasing him about how he knows she won’t make lunch for him. Suddenly, their cat (named Order), jumps onto the kitchen table. Then, attracted by Bercow’s perfect-pitch impersonations of Tory grandees, his three-year-old daughter Jemima walks in shyly. Asked what her daddy does, she bites her lip before saying: “He sits in the chair.”
It’s exactly two years since Bercow, a state-educated son of a taxi driver, and Conservative MP for Buckingham, became the 157th Commons Speaker in a secret ballot of all MPs. Bercow saw off nine other candidates, including George Young, Alan Haselhurst, Margaret Beckett and Ann Widdecombe. He was elected at a moment of crisis for parliament: in the wake of the expenses scandal which stripped all parties of some of their longest-serving MPs and provoked fury and disgust in voters.
Bercow, always ambitious, had his eye on the Speakership during Michael Martin’s troubled period in the chair. Martin, a former sheet-metal worker who became Labour MP for Glasgow Springburn and then Speaker in 2000, was seen by MPs as a cautious “shop steward” who failed to tackle the expenses scandal. Bercow’s pitch for the job was that the Commons needed radical reform of the way it ran itself. He argued a strong chamber was needed to hold the government to account.
This mission was controversial from the start, and so was his personality and politics. A maverick, loathed by many in his party, he won more votes from Labour than from his own side. Many stories suggest that Cameron, with whom he has clashed repeatedly in recent weeks, dislikes him and wishes he were gone.
Bercow’s supporters argue that the scale of the challenge demanded a different kind of Speaker and that he is pushing through important reforms. His critics retort that he is too divisive to be impartial—the prime requirement of his position—that he escalates arguments rather than diffuses them, and that he is easily diverted by politically correct but trivial projects. He is also accused of trying to wield more power than his office actually holds. This view was summed up by the Tory MP Mark Pritchard, who earlier this year was overheard to say in the corridor behind the Speaker’s chair: “You’re not fucking royalty, Mr Speaker.”
We are spending his second anniversary in the job together, starting with the school run. At 8.30am, Bercow and his two sons zip down in the small lift from his flat to Speaker’s Court, a courtyard in parliament. He drives the boys in his own car to a nearby state school; he has told his staff to block off this time each day.
Once back in his office, he embarks on meetings with clerks (who address him always as “Mr Speaker”) and deputy speakers, trying to anticipate the day’s events in the chamber. He is exercised by the government’s sudden, curious determination to whip against a backbench proposal to ban circus animals. The same clerks later stand beside his throne-like chair in the chamber, prompting him on the few occasions he needs it.
The job of the Speaker is to preside over Commons debates, to ensure order is kept and that all voices in the chamber are heard, and ultimately to assert the power of the legislature as a counterbalance to the power of the executive (the government). Critics of Britain’s parliamentary system have long argued it is an “elective dictatorship,” with an over-mighty executive that is not, as in the United States, separated from the legislature. Under the large majorities of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the power of parliament was eroded. Bercow sees his job as trying to reverse this trend. “We have got to try to re-establish the House of Commons as an effective legislature,” he says, “in which members of parliament see it as their duty not merely to undertake very important case work, but to hold the government to account, whether they are opposition backbenchers or government backbenchers.” He adds: “The legislature is not there as a rubber stamping operation; the legislature is there to do its work, to question, to probe, to scrutinise, to challenge, to expose, to contradict.”
Before he came to office, he argues, parliament was becoming marginalised. Ministers were bypassing it in favour of the media: “There was a widespread feeling that it had diminished in significance, had become much less lively, and if people wanted to get a message across the best thing to do was to go on College Green and give an interview. I wanted to revive the chamber, make it more dynamic and interesting, and to catapult the backbencher to centre stage.”
Bercow has been successful in some aims. For a start, he is articulate in the chair, able to silence the House in a way Martin never quite could. His trademark message as he calls the House to order is that “the public loathes” the shouting and playground noises from MPs. He has shortened questions and answers, enabling backbenchers to challenge the government much more often. And he has revived the dormant institution of the Urgent Question, which allows MPs to ask topical questions about national and international crises of the day. These are submitted to the Speaker by MPs in paper form, and the Speaker has the power to grant these to backbenchers, which result in ministers being called to the House to reply, often on the same day. (The most recent instance of this was over the News of the World phone hacking scandal.) By the end of May this year, Bercow had granted 65 “UQs”; Martin granted just two in his last year.
Last year, the House voted through a series of reforms which help with the scrutiny of government, and offer an alternative career path for MPs who for too long have seen being on the government payroll as the only way to get on in parliament. Bercow ensured that MPs voted on those changes before the general election to prevent the new government from reversing them. The reforms have given Commons select committees more power and credibility, with chairs of the committees elected by MPs, rather than decided privately in a process influenced by party whips and leaders. In June the first ever backbench business committee was established. This enables backbenchers to schedule scores of debates on issues of their choice in the Commons chamber as well as Westminster Hall. Together, these reforms have given MPs more opportunities to exert their influence independently from the government.
Outside Westminster, Bercow has made the unprecedented step of touring the country, representing parliament. A separate office oversees this programme, known as Outreach. In a break with the style of his predecessors, he addresses charities and campaign groups, and visits schools and universities to argue the merits of parliamentary democracy. Bercow does not seek out media appearances, but he sees part of his role as being the public face of parliament: “I do think we’ve got some… duty to reconnect with the public.” He has given his name to a “Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme,” a cross-party plan to let young people experience working in parliament.
There are several strands of criticism aimed at Bercow. One flank comes from vested interests. The whips, whose priority is to enforce loyalty to the party leaderships, were never going to welcome the strengthening of committee power. Similarly, traditionalists were never going to like his personal, modern style. Betty Boothroyd, the respected former Speaker, is among those who have attacked his refusal to wear traditional cuffs and a white shirt in the chair. “If you are doing a job, you wear the uniform of that job,” she has said. In reply, Bercow says: “I think there are a lot of people who say actually [the regalia] is a barrier between parliament and the public.”
Others have accused him of being too concerned with political correctness at the expense of substance. He has created parliament’s first nursery (charging commercial rates), for use by staff as well as MPs (located at the old site one of parliament’s many bars). It was opposed by traditionalists and by Conservatives on Westminster Council. House clerks remember discussions about providing childcare going back 40 years. His drive to secure a licence for civil partnerships within the parliamentary grounds met with similar resistance. Soon after Bercow took the post, he was approached by Chris Bryant, the Labour MP, who wanted hold a civil partnership ceremony in the Palace of Westminster. Previously, marriages had taken place in the chapel, which did not allow civil partnerships. But Bercow obtained a licence from Westminster City Council and the service went ahead, in the Members’ dining room in March last year, followed by a reception in the Speaker’s state rooms.
Bercow says that “we have made progress” on the social makeup of parliament. “It has become more meritocratic. We’ve got more women, we’ve got more members of the ethnic minorities, and we’ve got people educated in state schools and greater numbers than in the past who’ve been to non-Oxbridge universities. But the challenge of social mobility remains.” Yet these, unlike the nursery, are not his own achievements. Many also question whether someone in his role should pursue such an agenda in this most traditional of places.
The loudest and potentially most serious criticism is that he is too divisive a figure for Speaker: an office dependent on a reputation for dignified neutrality. This is most widely felt within his own party. Tory backbenchers mounted several coup plots during the first year of his Speakership, and the overt disdain for him extends to the top of the party. A senior Tory MP who prefers not to be named says his party’s relationship with Bercow is “very delicate” at present. “He does more speaking than most Speakers, and he’s very keen on pursuing his own line on things. No doubt at all, he has antagonised a lot of people.”
In private, Cameron has told both journalists and cabinet members a joke about Bercow, who is five feet six inches tall. In the joke, the Speaker remonstrates with a minister for backing into his car. “I’m not happy,” says Bercow. “Well, which one are you?” asks the minister, referring to the seven dwarves. This may be a light-hearted quip, but last year, Simon Burns, the Conservative health minister, called Bercow a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf” inside the Commons chamber. In May, when President Barack Obama addressed parliament, an announcer said that the Speaker would give a “short” introductory speech. There were some titters among Tory MPs; alone among the senior politicians on stage, Cameron guffawed. On the night Bercow became Speaker, Cameron was said to be “livid” and vowed to help get rid of him. Yet even Cameron is now said to acknowledge privately that Bercow “gets through the business of the House” quickly and competently. A Downing Street spokesman insists the prime minister is “entirely happy” with the Speaker.
The reasons for many Conservatives’ dislike of Bercow run deep. Many do not forgive him for his journey from the far right to the far left of the party. Before entering parliament, he embedded himself with traditionalist Tories as the secretary of the immigration and repatriation committee of the Monday Club, a right-wing pressure group. He had amassed some private wealth as a merchant banker and lobbyist before pursuing a full-time political career and, while campaigning to be selected before the 1997 election, he was so keen to win that he used a helicopter to get from one selection meeting to another in time.
He rose up the ranks quickly to become shadow chief secretary to the Treasury. But by 2002, the year he married his Labour-supporting wife Sally Illman, he appeared to have made a dramatic change of direction. He wrote a letter to his own constituency party in Buckingham describing his party as “racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-youth.” In a move that marked the end of his career within the party, he resigned from the shadow front bench over the refusal by Iain Duncan Smith, then leader, to back adoption for homosexual couples. His conversion from one extreme of the party to the other was unusual and, according to one senior Conservative, still “gets in the way” and “makes people feel that there is a bias even if there isn’t one.” Some observers put the change down to his wife Sally, or “that woman” as a few Tory MPs call her. But sources close to Bercow say his rethink, especially on social equality, started before he met her, and was partly a reaction against the attitudes of some fellow Tory MPs.
Senior Labour figures including Ed Balls, Gordon Brown and Alastair Campbell attempted to get Bercow to defect to their party. He resisted their advances, but in 2007, Balls persuaded him to head up a review of services for children and young people with special needs in language (Bercow’s son is one).
The public pronouncements of Sally Bercow, who campaigned for Ed Balls during the leadership last year, have also caused many to question his underlying neutrality. She is tipped by Labour insiders as a future MP, and regularly uses Twitter to rebuke the Tories. Many have questioned her judgement. She revealed in a 2009 Evening Standard interview that in her youth she was a “binge drinker” who engaged in one-night stands. The same paper later persuaded her to be photographed covered only by a bedsheet. Perhaps more damagingly, she has made her views of Cameron clear. In 2009, she said he is “just a merchant of spin. I think he’s really an archetypal Tory. He favours the interests of the few over the mainstream majority. I do think the Tory party is for the privileged few and what it stands for isn’t in the interests of most ordinary people.” Bercow rejects the notion that having a Labour-supporting wife is a problem for the Speaker because it damages his reputation for impartiality. They are married, he points out, “not joined at the hip” and “the premise upon which this argument is based is that the wife isn’t an independent person at all; she is just an extension of her husband.”
Aside from political differences—Bercow is to the left of Cameron, believing, among other things, in the redistribution of wealth—there is also the class factor. Bercow himself comes from a Jewish, working-class background in Edgware, north London. There are whispers of antisemitism among some Tory MPs who occasionally refer to him as “oily” and “not one of us.” In 2005, Bercow backed Kenneth Clarke over Cameron for the party’s leadership, and remarked that an Old Etonian and member of the male-only club White’s wasn’t the best advertisement for a modern Tory party. Bercow has told friends that Cameron, in a one-on-one meeting with Bercow to try to gain his support, remonstrated with him for mentioning White’s, saying his father would be upset if he resigned his membership.
It is certainly true that Bercow is sometimes guilty of engaging and inflaming his tormenters, which is problematic considering the position he holds. He is reviled among elements of the right-wing press, but is unrepentant. He says, for example, that his only regret about recently calling the Daily Mail “racist” is that “I may be guilty of under-statement.” Quentin Letts, the Mail’s parliamentary sketch-writer, responds that Bercow “doesn’t like criticism, so he’s reverting to bluster—that’s what this is about.” Letts frequently refers to him as “Squeaker Bercow”; Bercow, in turn, refers to his antagonist as “Fatty Letts.”
But perhaps the most substantial charge against Bercow is that the Speaker does not have the power to change parliament as much as he wants to: that his ambition exceeds the remit of his office. Bercow trumpets progress on expenses, but (as he acknowledges) he did not and could not push the reforms through himself. Instead, it had to be done by establishing the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). Set up as part of the Parliamentary Standards Act in 2009, IPSA saved £18m in the first ten months after new rules were introduced. The restrictions were met with anger among many MPs. Bercow is unrepentant. “I think that reform was worth making and there’s no going back on it.” In February, he sent an eight-page letter to IPSA repeating that the old system was “discredited.”
There is, however, much he cannot do. He cannot change the make-up of the House of Lords even though he would like to; he is on record as saying, before he became Speaker, that he believes in an elected second chamber, like his friend Kenneth Clarke. Nor in reality can he change the social make-up of the Chamber over which he presides, aside from encouraging, as he does, people from all walks of life to get interested in politics.
Yet for all the criticism, even his enemies accept he is now “safe.” He was re-elected as Speaker immediately after the May general election, as is standard practice and senior Conservatives now even offer open support. “Although I did not vote for Speaker Bercow I believe he is carrying out his responsibilities in a conscientious and highly competent manner,” Malcolm Rifkind has said. Before the general election, Nadine Dorries vowed to “be studying the procedure to call a Speaker re-election… and will have [it] ingrained on my heart ready to go when the Conservative party take power.” (Speakers hold office until they decide to step down, but, as in the case of Martin, they can be pressured to quit.) Today she tells me: “John Bercow has brought his own unique style to the chair… and has my absolute unwavering loyalty and support.” Off the record, one Tory MP put it more candidly: “He’s rather more a schoolmaster than a Speaker. There is about 20 per cent of him that most Tory MPs really rather like. It’s an odd situation and he’s a rather odd chap.”
Over a mug of coffee in his kitchen, Bercow reflects on his turbulent relationship with the Conservative party. “I sometimes took a position that was a bit different from my party but I don’t think that’s in any way a disqualification from service in the [Speaker’s] chair. I am obliged to be impartial and I have consistently discharged that obligation to the best of my ability—and I will go on doing so. I have no allegiance to one side or the other.” Writers who make personal attacks on him and his wife are “not in any sense serious commentators… No doubt they’ll go on peddling their own sort of bigotry. I have never lost a wink of sleep about it, and I don’t intend to start now.”
Bercow can undoubtedly be controversial and provocative. Yet his underlying agenda—the strengthening of parliament—is of undeniable importance at a time when public trust of politicians is at an all-time low and party membership is dwindling. He has seen through steps in the right direction: he has pressed hard for the House to vote through some crucial reforms to empower the Commons over government; he has substantially increased contributions by backbenchers by shortening questions and reviving Urgent Questions, and he has resisted pressure to dilute IPSA’s changes to expenses. But he is still restless. “There is still a problem with ministers and those attached to them chattering away to the media before making statements in the House, and I’d like to improve that.” Perhaps more importantly, he says “I’d like select committees to have more power; I’d like them to compel witnesses to appear.”
The limits of his office may well curtail his hopes of seeing through substantial changes to parliament, or improving its tarnished public image. But, having alienated himself from the Conservative party and decided not to join Labour, Bercow has nothing to lose. His desire, undoubtedly, is to leave behind a House more welcoming of MPs like him, more independent-minded and less swayed by party patronage. Whether or not he achieves this, he says he will never regret taking on the role. “It’s the most rewarding job in the House that I’ve ever done or could ever do. And I’d like to do it for quite a bit longer.”
A HISTORY OF SPEAKERS
• The first Speaker appeared in 1376, when parliament convened to criticise the policies of John of Gaunt, then in control of government. Sir Peter de la Mare, a knight of the shire of Hertfordshire, assumed the unprecedented role of spokesman, and two of the most unpopular members of the king’s household were impeached
• In 1642, Charles I (above) entered parliament to seize five “disruptive” members. Occupying the speaker’s chair, Charles demanded of William Lenthall, the speaker, their whereabouts. Lenthall refused, saying he was a “servant of the House”
• Arthur Onslow, the longest serving Speaker (1728-1761), is credited with creating a new model of impartial and independent Speakers
• By 1900, the office had, according to one commentator, acquired “many of the attributes of royalty… Within the precincts of the House [the Speaker] is invested with a rank superior to that of the crown”
• From the mid 20th century, the Speaker has increasingly come to represent the accessible public face of the state. In 1967, Horace Maybray King, the first Labour Speaker, accepted an invitation to turn on the Blackpool illuminations. Michael Martin became the first Roman Catholic Speaker in 2000, and John Bercow is the first Jewish Speaker