John Bercow by Tim McDonagh.

"I shouldn't really be saying this": John Bercow on Brexit, backbenchers and why nobody dreams of being speaker

The speaker’s chair has become the crucible for the whole Brexit constitutional crisis. And John Bercow is loving it
March 2, 2019

“Look, I probably shouldn’t say this,” teases John Bercow, casting that infamously mischievous smile in the direction of a spokeswoman who joins us for our interview. “But I’m a bit odd.”

The Speaker of the House, as one of the most colourful yet controversial characters in contemporary politics, has been called many things. “Charming,” “smart,” and “passionate” are offered by some of the fans I’ve spoken to. David Cameron described him alternatively as “a little shit.” He seems to inspire love and hate, collecting adversaries and allies in equal measure. Indeed, the more his attackers plot to remove him from office—and there have been several attempts—the more his advocates rally around him. This is his fourth parliament in the chair, and it will be 10 years this summer, longer than any other occupant since the war. In this, his biographer Bobby Friedman describes him as “a lucky politician.” In recent weeks, however, it has appeared as though luck might run out for this declared Remain voter who is refereeing parliament’s great Brexit battles under the cloud of a row about bullying.

I once put the processes of parliament on stage in my play This House at the National Theatre, that concrete temple on the south bank of the Thames. But today the greatest and most dangerous political theatre is happening inside the real-time Gothic palace opposite. And the roving spotlight has once again alighted upon Bercow. Or perhaps, as some suggest, he has sought it out himself.

This is not the first time in the long history of the role that the presiding officer has found him or herself thrust into the centre of controversial events. First identified in 1258 and therefore one of the oldest political positions on the planet, the job’s primary purpose is to be the defender of parliament, and preserve its sovereign role from attack—whether that be from the monarch, or the modern executive. History relates many such moments, the most famous being when Charles I made what we refer to in my industry as “a bit of an entrance” into the chamber, demanding the arrest of five members for treason. To which it fell to Speaker William Lenthall to robustly but politely cast God’s representative some parliamentary shade, and show him the exit. Civil war followed, and parliament won. More recently in the late 20th and early 21st century, in the face of strong prime ministers and powerful governments, the Commons has often felt like an ageing screen icon, content to play the supporting role.

Not anymore. Parliament is back, with a vengeance. This season’s comeback kid is the House of Commons, and many place its new puffed-up confidence at Bercow’s door. “He loves parliament,” Friedman says. “Has always loved parliament. He’s a Hansard under the bedsheets kind of guy.” This is what Bercow means by his self-confessed oddness. “I’m anorak-ish. I’m rather nerdy, I suppose.”

And the forces of history have contrived to place this combative, vitriolic and bullish bodyguard of the backbencher into the chair at an unparalleled moment of national trauma, with a government facing a historically challenging and perhaps impossible task.

We were never meant to be here, of course. The risk averse British populace was meant to do what it had always done and vote to maintain the status quo in the referendum. It didn’t. The incoming May administration was meant to enjoy a free hand, and have autonomy to to trigger Article 50. The Supreme Court decided it couldn’t. No matter. Because our first-past-the-post electoral system is supposed to deliver strong majorities and allow dominant premiers, which Theresa May was, to go to the country and stack the Commons in their favour. It didn’t. Which would still be alright so long as our European neighbours behaved the way that we had been assured they would and gave us the terms we desired because they needed us more than we needed them. Well, they don’t, and so they didn’t. This wasn’t meant to happen. But we are where we are. And the competing institutions within the delicate balance of Britain’s unwritten, uncodified constitution were left all set for a reckoning.

Lights up, on 9th January 2019…

Bercow v Brexit?

Picture the scene. Outside, protestors of various factions, left and right, Leave and Remain, have the parliamentary estate under siege. Inside, it’s the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the year. The finale of the last session, everyone accepts, was a bit much. This fractious mood before the break arose because the government had postponed the “meaningful vote” on its withdrawal agreement. This, most agreed—and none more so than Bercow himself—was bad form.

“I robustly, though I hope politely,” he says, with one of those twinkly smiles again, “suggested that they (the government) might wish to put that proposition to a vote. After all, 60 per cent of the debate had already been conducted—164 people had already spoken! And I said that I thought that a summary postponement of the debate was deeply discourteous to the House. You’ll have to reflect why they didn’t want to put it to a vote.”

As he knows, little reflection is required. The government knew it would lose. (And in the end, on 15th January, it did, by a greater margin that any government has ever lost anything in the oldest continually-functioning democracy on earth.) But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. On 9th January the question was the still-hypothetical one of what would happen if this postponed big vote was lost.

The public ordinarily, and sensibly, pays no attention to the arcane and often irrelevant procedures of the House. But it’s fair to say that for those who do follow such things, what happened that day was unprecedented, and generated an aggressive revolt against the speaker himself, inside the chamber in which he presides.

Bercow selected an amendment from Dominic Grieve to the “business motion” about when and how the next meaningful vote on May’s deal would take place. This was not chiefly controversial for what that amendment would force upon the government—though it was that too, demanding May must return to the House and explain her next steps within three sitting days. But the most electric controversy about this amendment—from the former Attorney General turned backbench anti-Brexit campaigner Grieve—arose because the speaker went against all accepted precedent and, it turns out, the advice of his clerks, in selecting it. Business motions, you see, are not normally amended at all, and when occasionally they are, it is only done by a minister.

That’s the procedural logic as the clerks saw it. The countering political logic, with the exit date of 29th March looming, was that the government should be back in the chamber as soon as possible. For Bercow, perhaps characteristically, the political logic prevailed.

In scenes rarely witnessed, the House was in a state of near hysteria as the gowned speaker stood leaning over the side of his ancient chair, deep in animated conversations with his courtly advisers, attired in their 18th-century garb and looking unusually flustered. What followed was an unscheduled hour of slings and arrows from the government benches at a man whose authority visibly wobbled before us; a speaker under siege. Ministers and members accused him of behaving unconstitutionally. He had abused his authority. He had a grudge against the government (which has long resented what it sees as betrayal by a former fellow Conservative). He was a Remainer trying to frustrate Brexit. A narcissist trying to insert himself into the frame. The points of order ranged from the dignified—Commons leader Andrea Leadsom challenging Bercow’s decision as “extremely concerning”—to the bizarre, with Tory MP Adam Holloway accusing him of having a “Bollocks to Brexit” sticker in his car, and asking him if “he had ever driven it.” That one had clearly been rankling for a while.

Bercow took the blows, sometimes ruffled, other times defiant, promising to “reflect” on the criticisms, but also maintaining that he would take “no lessons or lectures” on how to fulfil his duty, “no matter how much abuse I get.”

All part and parcel of Punch and Judy politics? Perhaps. But it confirmed the prejudice in the minds of his sharpest detractors—almost all Conservative, almost all Leave—that the current occupant of the most sacred seat in parliament is a turncoat saboteur out to disrupt and derail, either in the service of his own political sensibility, or in the service of himself.

We meet in the speaker’s apartment, in the northwest corner of parliament, in the shadow of the currently silenced Big Ben. A poignant bit of symbolism, I’m sure you’d agree. He enters brightly and shakes my hand. Although it is our first encounter, I did know he had come to see This House, and had been kind enough to stay and meet the cast, who were thrilled to meet him. Actors often harbour desires for political influence as much as political influencers harbour desires to be actors.

And speaking of actors, when he guides me to the bright red sofas in the bright red carpeted room adorned with portraits and a corner view facing Westminster Bridge, he muses on the fact that one of the more recent guests to imprint themselves upon the cushion I’m sinking into was Richard Gere. So there you are.

Born in Middlesex in the 1960s, this comprehensive-educated, lapsed Conservative, son of a Jewish taxi driver is a welcoming, easy-to-chat-to-host, today wearing a decidedly non-conservative tie with multi-coloured neon hearts. I ask if it’s a fair characterisation to say that we’re living in unprecedented times—whether this political moment really is, put plainly, extraordinary. “I think it is a fair characterisation,” he says. “The fact that Brexit is the biggest single public policy challenge affecting any government or parliament in the post-war period. The fact that it entails a negotiation with another very important player and the fact that it all has to be done within a pretty concentrated timescale. When you put all of those factors together, you can see that it’s quite a…” He pauses, for effect. “… A heady brew.” An understatement if ever there was one.

Now then. About that amendment. Does he have sympathy for the ministers who feel their job has been frustrated by parliament? “I understand why they were disappointed. But I would stop well short of saying I have any sympathy for them,” he says carefully. “They tabled a motion mid-afternoon, or late afternoon, it wasn’t done on a collaborative basis with the Opposition, which does sometimes happen… They tabled a motion, I think having consulted the clerks for advice, which they thought was unamendable.”

“And so it was ‘play,’ on their part,” he suggests, wryly. He insists that “they were trying to ensure they got their way. And they tabled that motion thinking it was unamendable and they didn’t consult me about it at all.”

But even in this, as he will often do in our conversation, he tries—sincerely or pragmatically—to demonstrate diplomacy to the other side, in contrast to his reputation as a divisive antagonist. “You know, the government whips office is there to serve the government. It’s not there to please me. It’s to help the government get its business through.” Nevertheless, “it’s always been parliament’s job to hold government to account.”

With the Grieve amendment, it all comes down to the ambiguity around the term “forthwith.” Bear with.

“Is it true,” Bercow asks, “that if you look back over a period of years, the inclusion in the business of the House motion of the word “forthwith” has tended to denote ‘unamendable?’” Well, yes. “Erskine May, the bible of parliamentary procedure, has referenced this and said ‘well by precedent, such motions are not amendable.’”

"I'm a human. I'm flawed. I make mistakes." —John Bercow

But with this being a historic crisis, and the effect being a truncation of the timetable, he says, “I decided that an amendment to that motion in the name of Dominic Grieve was a very credible proposition.” He continues: “I wasn’t supporting that amendment! But, I thought, ‘let it be put to the House.’”

He unpacks his personal thinking further. Which is important, given that he reportedly ignored the clerk’s advice, and has refused to release it. “I don’t publish the advice I get. But there was a discussion with clerks, and I listened to what they said, but you know, advisers advise, ministers decide. Well, clerks advise, speakers decide. And I had to make the judgment that I thought was right.” If I’m asking him whether he has any regrets, he says, “then the honest answer is no.”

What do the experts think? Catherine Haddon from the Institute of Government tells me that, “from a constitutional point of view, it was not justified by the existing rules and how they were understood by MPs and clerks, but it was in the sense that the speaker has the power to break with precedent in this way.” Bercow wouldn’t disagree. “If we were guided only by precedent, nothing would ever change.

“I hope this doesn’t sound too defensive, certainly I don’t feel defensive. I would like to say to you that everything I do as speaker is done honestly and with the best intention.” Later on, however, he acknowledges his fallibility, arms outspread. “I’m human. To err is human. I’m flawed. I make mistakes. I’m trying to fail better each day… I’m not saying I get it right all the time. And it’s not for me to say whether I’m a good speaker or not.”

Hanging in there

Herein lies the rub. In a parliament where outside rules and the courts have had no locus since, at least, the Glorious Revolution established its privileges in 1689, the space that a codified constitution might have filled is instead left as a vacuum that has to be filled by an individual, who is human, with strengths and weaknesses, conscious and unconscious bias, and flaws. Bercow accepts that this is, possibly, “a vulnerability” within our system. And yet, he thinks, “it’s also possibly a strength. Traditionally, quite a lot of power in these circumstances is vested in the occupant of the chair, and the chair has to exercise that power or discretion with care.” And so Bercow must “express myself carefully,” and act with “a rationale” in a way which “can be defended,” which—interestingly—he thinks “also means it can be criticised.”

And boy was he criticised. I put to him the suspicions from some that in Grieve-gate he secretly enjoyed being thrust forward to fight for his beloved parliament. It’s something he is happy to admit. “I did enjoy it, to be honest. I didn’t look for it. I think it’s a subtle distinction but quite an important one. I wasn’t looking for a fight. People say ‘oh well you know the thing about John’—including friends of mine—‘he rather, sort of, looks for fights. He quite enjoys crossing the road in the hope of a punch up.’ Well, I don’t think that’s quite right.”

But Bercow is right to remind us about something. Something we mustn’t forget. “This is a hung parliament,” he says firmly. And Bercow is in fact the only speaker of modern times who has spent the majority of his tenure with a minority parliament. (Cameron, recall, needed a formal coalition with the Lib Dems for five years, and now we have May’s muddle-through minority). That’s a pretty serious succession of rowdy classrooms to be in charge of. And he arrived, a decade ago, in the middle of the expenses scandal, when the reliably low reputation of parliament had hit rock bottom. It is an inheritance that has defined his speakership.

Summer 2009, and at the retirement of Michael Martin, an election for a new speaker is taking place against a backdrop of deep public anger.

“First of all, I never had a historic long-nurtured desire from childhood to be speaker. Because you wouldn’t, would you?” he laughs. “It’s a role of referee or umpire.”

Prior to this, Bercow’s ideological transition has been the diametric opposite to the more traditional path from youthful lefty towards the conservative right. What did it take for the young Monday Club hardliner—who in 1986 was the satirical target of an article called “The John Bercow Guide to Understanding Women” in Armageddon, a magazine for young Conservatives, with tips on how to pick up drunk girls by flashing around credit cards and playing games about naming their breasts—to being someone who, by 2002, would resign from the Tory frontbench because of its resistance to gay adoption? Theories that it occurred when he met his Labour-supporting future wife and “discovered sex,” Bercow says are “lazy.” (Sally Bercow herself started out as a young Tory.) Instead, he cites the heavy Tory defeat in 2001 as a prime factor in his journey towards more progressive causes, such as addressing global poverty and special educational needs, and turned him into the sort to make a gleeful show of not inviting President Trump to speak in parliament on the grounds of “our opposition to racism and sexism.”

As his party came to terms with a second landslide defeat to Labour, he says “that’s when I started to think about the issues. And my attitude to issues.” Like every speaker he is technically independent now, but he is in much less of a hurry than most to go quiet on his opinions. Free enterprise, he still believes, is a better model than the command economy, but public services also need to be properly resourced.

And in a moment that takes me aback, he begins to get incredibly emotional. “What we’ve got is a lot of very affluent people doing very well but people at the bottom of the pile, in many cases who really are trying…” and he pauses, eyes filling quickly with tears and voice cracking: “…you know they’re desperately struggling, they’re eking out an existence… And any serious party of government with an ounce of compassion should want to protect those people.”

I check in with Friedman, author of Bercow: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party, who isn’t surprised by the swelling of emotion in such cases. “When he feels things, he [does so] very strongly. And fervently. He’s 100 per cent one thing or 100 per cent the other.”

From the backbenches to the chair

So why would the opinionated Bercow, who from the age of 16 knew he wanted to be an MP, want to be the master of ceremonies where no politicking is (meant to be) done at all? “The truth of the matter is I was somewhat torn, conflicted and almost a tortured soul for a time, in parliament. When I was on the backbenches I wanted to be on the frontbenches, and when I was on the frontbenches I wanted to be on the back.” After resigning from Iain Duncan Smith’s shadow cabinet, he was essentially sacked from Michael Howard’s. “I wasn’t a very good frontbencher because I wasn’t very good at accepting a collective line.”

The idea of the speakership came shortly after, in summer 2003. “I left the front bench, I said to my wife, I said to Sally, ‘honey, I don’t want to come back, I didn’t much enjoy being on the frontbench, I often found myself out of sympathy with my party’s policy.’” When he and Sally had a drink with the infamous former Tory cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken and his wife Elizabeth soon after, it was Aitken who reminded Bercow of post-war Tory foreign secretary and chancellor Selwyn Lloyd, who was consigned to the backbenches for years, before being nominated for speaker. “Just a thought,” Aitken said, almost with a wink. Walking home that night, Sally said she thought it a good idea. “‘You love parliament,’ she said to me. ‘Honey’ [they evidently both call each other honey], ‘whatever else, you’ve got a good memory.’” (It’s true. Once elected, the clerks tell me he pulled off the impressive feat of learning every member’s name and face within a week.)

He was elected on a clear platform. “The truth of the matter was that over decades the power of government had increased, and was continuing to increase, and needed to decrease. Of which the corollary was that the power of parliament had decreased, was continuing to decrease and needed to increase. And that really was the proposition I put to my colleagues.”

He wanted Prime Minister’s Questions to speed up. Shorter questions, shorter answers. And then there was what he calls “the renaissance of the Urgent Question,” which demands that ministers immediately come to the House to respond, no matter how inconvenient. He respects frontbenchers who are “good parliamentarians,” including Labour’s Jack Straw who “never complained” about UQs, and Tory Michael Gove, who he describes as “extremely capable.”

But in the shadow of the well-painted speakers looking down upon him in our room—from Betty Boothroyd to Jack Weatherill (a personal favourite of mine) he sees himself, and others see him too, as “the backbenchers’ speaker,” an advocate of the average member. And while a run of recent Bercow rulings have drawn ire from Leavers, the first great procedural surprise he sprung, allowing a decidedly unusual amendment at the Queen’s speech debate in 2013, was a boon for backbench Eurosceptics who were desperate to debate an EU referendum. This gives him some claim, at least, to side with the awkward squad even when they are not on his own side. Bercow has tried to strengthen members’ hands with whatever historic instruments he can pull from the speaker’s magic hat.

There is, however, no getting away from the recent controversy around conduct behind the scenes. Parliament was thrust into an unforgiving light when Newsnight broadcast a string of allegations from former senior Commons staff. Former private secretary Angus Sinclair broke a non-disclosure agreement to discuss what he viewed as “over the top anger” in the speaker’s office. There was muttering from others who had worked behind the scenes about a “temper” too, intimidation, and of Bercow growling and grabbing lapels. Biographer Friedman sheds some light when he describes Bercow as a “Jekyll and Hyde personality. He’s charming. But he doesn’t feel the need to necessarily keep people onside when they have a disagreement.”

Meanwhile, we had the report by former judge Laura Cox, which took evidence from over 200 complainants about bullying and sexual harassment across the Commons as a whole, and blamed it on a culture of “acquiescence and silence.” Most of the allegations here were nothing to do with Bercow personally. But as the highest authority in the Commons, the responsibility to fix it ultimately stops with the chair, and Cox cast doubt on the ability of the House’s “current leadership” to fix the problems. The outgoing current clerk, David Natzler, has defended his boss, and the speaker’s friends suspect smearing. But when Labour veteran Margaret Beckett spoke up for Bercow staying put on the grounds that the Brexit emergency “trumps bad behaviour,” Leavers’ suspicions about Remainers closing ranks behind their man only intensified.

With time ticking, he declined to delve any further into the bullying furore during our conversation, so we’re left with what he’s already put on the record. In the chamber, though, he has said “there must be zero tolerance of sexual harassment or of bullying, here at Westminster,” and has also lent support to an independent commission to deal with all future complaints.

When he first took the job, he declared he would step down after nine years; last year he let it be known he’d likely be out after 10. But there is no sign of it yet, and given the crisis, perhaps there won’t be. But what of the threats to the impartiality of the role in the long term? After this pro-active speakership, even if it has been—as he would claim—pro-active in the service of parliament rather than any party or faction, future candidates for the chair could feel impelled to make more promises in the hustings, and what, besides the sorts of precedent he has overriden, is there to stop future speakers becoming directly beholden to the opinions of those who voted for them?

But for now, Bercow, the showman whose entertaining and elaborate put-downs of misbehaving members have seen his parliamentary sessions recently receive higher ratings than MTV, continues to be the most interesting figure in the House. “I think I’m blessed,” he says. “I think I’ve been incredibly lucky. You know, it’s the most…” his voice cracking again, eyes tearing up, “…the most rewarding thing that I could possibly do in parliament. So, you know, I’ve no plans to die tomorrow. But if I were to die tomorrow, I think I would die happy.”

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Edit 06/03/2019: This article has been amended to reflect the fact that John Bercow’s office now states that he was the satirical target of the 1986 article in Armageddon rather than the author, as had previously been widely reported elsewhere and was originally suggested here too.