It is not every day one finds oneself in agreement with Jacob Rees-Mogg. At the height of the Brexit crisis, a BBC interviewer invited him to denounce John Bercow. “I won’t do that,” he replied, “because I think he is a historically significant Speaker.”
For what it’s worth, so do I. In an age when politics and politicians in general are low in public esteem, he has done more than any other Speaker of recent times to increase the power of parliament to hold to account an over-mighty executive. Thanks to Bercow the average backbench MP is now better placed to challenge ministers than at any time in living memory. As he highlights in his new memoir, Unspeakable, he has also played an important part in encouraging parliament’s transition from a cosy, insular, self-satisfied gentlemen’s club to one that better reflects the people it is supposed to represent.
During my 23 years in parliament, I served under four Speakers—Jack Weatherill and Betty Boothroyd were universally respected and of undisputed integrity, but they were both in their way establishment figures unlikely to rock many boats. Michael Martin, born in the slums of Glasgow, was a decent man, but sadly not up to the job. Martin had the misfortune to be in the hot seat at the time of the parliamentary expenses meltdown, which led to his resignation. I overlapped with Bercow only in my final year, but it was apparent from the outset that he was cut from different cloth than his predecessors: relatively young, energetic, radical and outspoken. He was also loathed by many Tory MPs.
[su_pullquote]How did someone who enjoyed little support on his own side come to be elected to one of the highest offices in the land?[/su_pullquote]
How did someone who enjoyed little support on his own side come to be elected to one of the highest offices in the land? After Martin’s resignation in 2009, the Tories went around saying it was their turn and the tribalists on the majority Labour side said: “OK, if you want a Tory, we’ll give you one,” and went out of their way to choose the candidate least palatable to their opponents. Bercow was resented because of his long and highly visible journey from hardline Thatcherite to wobbly centrist; he appeared to have more in common with his Labour opponents than with his own party.
John Bercow was born in the north London suburb of Mill Hill to a Jewish father who was a second-hand car salesman and later a minicab driver. His mother, a shorthand typist, was from a family of Yorkshire Methodists. Neither was politically active, though Bercow senior was a man of strong right-wing views and a fan of Enoch Powell. The couple separated when John was aged 10. He attended the local comprehensive where he was bullied on account of his acne. Although undistinguished academically, he seems to have developed the gift of the gab at an early age. He also proved remarkably good at tennis, a passion that has stayed with him all his life.
Young Bercow’s political awakening was prompted by the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9, in the dying days of the Callaghan government. Then the chance encounter with the new prime minister Margaret Thatcher led him to join the Young Conservatives in April 1980. In January the following year, aged 18, he joined the Monday Club (“the most shameful decision I have ever made”) which strongly opposed immigration and supported white rule in southern Africa. He scraped into the politics department at Essex University (“a hotbed of leftism”) but emerged with a first. Before long he was chairman of the student Conservative Association and later the Federation of Conservative Students, a playground of ideologues and extremists and a frequent source of embarrassment to Tory elders.
Although lacking the advantages of many of his Tory contemporaries, it was somehow inevitable that Bercow would end up in parliament. After years of striving while working in the City and as a lobbyist, he found himself shortlisted for two safe Conservative seats, Surrey Heath and Buckingham, which unfortunately were both selecting on the same night. Unfazed, he commuted between the two by helicopter (at the cost of £1,000) and was duly chosen to fight Buckingham, one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. He was elected in 1997, the year of the Labour landslide.
His early years in parliament were unremarkable. Hyperactive, he had opinions on everything, bobbing up and down like a jack in the box. “I was a party hack,” he says, “primarily thinking of myself, of wanting to be noticed, of how to make my mark and get on.”
There followed a brief spell on the front bench and a slightly more satisfying stint on the international development select committee. But none of this led anywhere.
It is only once he became Speaker that he had found his vocation. By now he had mellowed from, as he puts it, “a shrill right-winger” to “a moderate, centre ground, humanitarian Tory.” From the outset he trod on toes, speeding up parliamentary business, interrupting (sometimes rudely) anyone—government ministers included—who waffled. He often extended prime ministers’ questions beyond its usual 30 minutes, affording far more opportunities for backbenchers.
Above all, he began granting far more backbencher requests for statements or debates on topical issues. In most of my time these were granted only sparingly. When I last inquired, I found that Bercow had granted well over 400 urgent questions, which required ministers to drop everything and hasten to the House for a lengthy grilling. No wonder the government hated him.
He soon managed to upset senior officials of the House. There were minor skirmishes over his refusal, except on State occasions, to wear the full court dress as well as over the creation of a nursery for the children of staff and members. There were also battles over his insistence that everyone working in the Palace of Westminster should earn at least the London Living Wage, and the outlawing of zero-hours contracts. The appointment of a state educated, non-military man as Serjeant at Arms ruffled feathers too and his appointment of a black woman, the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, to the office of Speaker’s chaplain went down badly with the Anglican hierarchy. Not all his interventions were successful—notably a botched attempt to appoint the chief executive of the Australian parliament as clerk of the House over the head of the then assistant clerk, David Natzler.
Before long the establishment fought back. In 2011 the clerk’s department attempted to take control of the Speaker’s office, replacing the outgoing Speaker’s secretary with one of their own and advising Bercow to remove two long-standing and loyal employees. This was the origin of the bullying complaints that continue to dog Bercow. The woman concerned left after less than a year and since then there have been claims in the media that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, although no formal complaint was ever made. Her predecessor also alleged he had been bullied, although he too never lodged a formal complaint. Bercow strongly denies the allegations.
In 2015 the government attempted a coup. From the moment of his election, senior Tories made no secret of their intention to get rid of Bercow at the earliest opportunity. Only the fact that they lacked an overall majority prevented them from doing so. Eventually, on a quiet Thursday afternoon in the dying days of the Coalition, when many unsuspecting opposition members had returned to their constituencies, the leader of the House, William Hague, suddenly popped up with a proposal that future elections for Speaker should be carried out by secret ballot, which would have made it easier to remove Bercow.
It was, Hague claimed, a free vote (although it rapidly became clear that Tory members were on an informal three-line whip). Only the fact that a number of government backbenchers refused to go along with this sleight of hand and sounded the alarm prevented the motion from being approved. But for that, the Bercow speakership would have come to an inglorious end immediately after the 2015 election.
Bercow’s finest hour, presiding over the long Brexit battle, was yet to come. Theresa May, having needlessly squandered her majority in 2017, was on the ropes. Not only did she not have a majority, but there were dissidents on her own side. The Supreme Court had ruled that Article 50, authorising the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, could not be invoked without the approval of parliament. On 13th November 2018, after a long and tortuous process of negotiation (which had cost her two Brexit secretaries and her foreign secretary) May announced that finally she had a deal. She was on her feet in the Commons for two and a half hours. “I had never seen such a mauling,” says Bercow.
He was by now centre stage and revelling in it. To the government’s fury, he refused an attempt to terminate the subsequent debate when the government, knowing it would lose, tried to pull stumps. More controversially, in defiance of advice from the clerk of the House, he allowed an amendment from the former attorney general Dominic Grieve. Bercow describes the scene. “Ashen faced and shaking as if he had just learned of an appalling tragedy, the clerk looked up at me open mouthed and stared at me in disbelief. No Speaker had ever made such a ruling, he said. It went against precedent. We were, I said, in unprecedented times…”
The Grieve amendment was passed and May’s deal duly defeated by 432 votes to 202, the biggest rejection of any government policy in the history of parliament. A subsequent attempt, with minor changes, to re-table the agreement was also rejected by a large margin.
Bercow then ruled a third attempt out of order on the grounds that the matter had already twice been voted on. This time, despite nervousness on the part of the clerk, he had precedent on his side. By now ministers and government loyalists were apoplectic. Theresa May finally announced her intention to resign on 24th May.
What one thinks of Bercow’s handling of Brexit probably depends on which side of the argument one is on. Remainers, and perhaps a handful of Brexiteers, will see him as a champion of parliament at a time when the country was deeply divided. Undeniably, however, despite all the sound and fury, the government’s problem was not Bercow, but the fact that it lacked a majority, not least because a significant number of Tories dissented. It was, however, probably unwise of him to let it be known, as he did, that he had voted Remain and downright foolish for his wife’s car to be parked outside Speaker’s House displaying a “Bollocks to Brexit” sticker.
Predictably the Bercow memoirs have been excoriated by his enemies. “I had to hide the cover from shame” wailed Quentin Letts of the Times. “An unspeakable ego that bursts from every page” cried Craig Brown in the Mail on Sunday. Already there is a campaign under way, led by a former clerk of the House, to deny him the peerage usually granted to former speakers. Boris Johnson appears to be backing that campaign, though Jeremy Corbyn might still nominate him.
It is easy to see why Bercow can rub people up the wrong way. He can be verbose and pompous. He has used this memoir to settle many old scores, but he can also be charming, attractively self-deprecating and he addresses head-on the charges against him. He was arguably the right man in the right place for the turbulent times through which we have just lived. In the long run, he will be remembered for championing parliament in the face of an over-mighty, arrogant and incompetent executive.