Commons Speaker John Bercow Strengthens His Position Despite Disastrous 12 Months
John Bercow has had a rather difficult year. Twelve months ago, the Speaker of the House of Commons suffered public humiliation at the hands of Conservative MPs, who passed to the press physical evidence of so-called "Bollocked By Bercow" badges they were secretly wearing to subvert him. The badges were designed by backbencher Simon Burns, who famously muttered that Bercow was a "stupid, sanctimonious dwarf", only to apologise to dwarves for the offensive comparison.
The Speaker’s unpopularity with his former party turned from mockery to mutiny in the autumn, following his decision to rebuke the Prime Minister for using apparently unparliamentary language. The influential 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, one of whom described Bercow’s treatment of Cameron as "appalling", demanded a meeting to demand he change his behaviour. One warned ominously, "It was the first time I have seen the vast majority of Tory MPs outraged."
The death of Nelson Mandela brought him no respite. As the Speaker declared that the Commons should honour the former South African leader, he was reminded of his past membership of the Monday Club, which said Mandela "deserved" his prison sentence, and was accused of "broadly subscribing" with support for the Apartheid government. According to John Carlisle, the former pro-Apartheid MP, "he believed in the cause, he genuinely did."
Bercow’s professional woes were forgotten in February, when his private life was splashed across the front pages. The Speaker’s wife, the infinitely more popular Sally, had been photographed in an unfortunate embrace at a nightclub with a man who, to put it politely, was not her husband. Cuckolded in front of two million people, the incident actually won Bercow sympathy with backbenchers who had otherwise loathed him. "You wouldn't wish that on your worst enemy," said one who could have been forgiven for using it as ammunition.
Next came the investigations into his expenses. Bercow, who earns £142,000 as the Speaker, was found to have charged the taxpayer a further £150,000 for flights and hotel bills globe-trotting around the world. Then it was revealed that he was employing a nine-strong entourage at a cost of £383,000, including £42,000 a year on a train-bearer to carry his ceremonial cloak. Added to the £26,000 he claimed for formal dresswear and the £2,400 for having his curtains cleaned, Bercow had billed the taxpayer for some some £2 million in four years.
In the chamber, Bercow became ever more paranoid that he was the butt of jokes behind his back, taking out his suspicions by admonishing MPs and increasingly interrupting David Cameron during Prime Minister’s Questions. Week after week Bercow would tell Cameron to return to his seat just as an attack on Ed Miliband was reaching its crescendo, disrupting his momentum and ruining his soundbite for the Ten O’Clock News. To describe Downing Street as furious would be an understatement.
In April, their tempestuous relationship came to a head. Protesting an interruption from the chair an exasperated David Cameron exclaimed, "I haven't finished!", to which he was told, quite remarkably, "the Prime Minister has finished and he can take it from me that he is finished." It seemed a defining moment. Bercow had cracked under the pressure, from that moment on his behaviour would become ever more unpredictable, his hubris consuming him as he sought to impose his authority on parliament.
The most obvious abuse of power came during the battle for the chairmanship of the Defence Select Committee. On more than one occasion Bercow allowed Julian Lewis, his former campaign manager and close ally, to make his case for the job by asking questions in the House. Lewis ultimately lost the election, but the Speaker would not be deterred. In May he chaired a debate on extending his own powers, which granted him the right to call more amendments to the Queen’s Speech and thus more opportunities to undermine the Prime Minister’s authority.
That was not the least of Bercow’s manoeuvres. He had backed his friend Charles Walker for Chair of the Procedure committee. He had demanded reforms to "noisy" PMQs, insisting he was sent "bucket-loads" of complaints from the public despite receiving just 61 in six months. He had created a number of bizarre ‘Diversity and Inclusion Awards’, another unjustifiable taxpayer-funded Bercow ego-booster. The list goes on.
Most concerning of all, however, is the demise of the much-loved and widely-respected Clerk of the House. Sir Robert Rogers had survived almost forty years working in the House before he had to work for Bercow. This year, Sir Robert decided he could stay no longer. I am told of Bercow "throwing tantrums" at his Clerk, that the Speaker had subjected him to abuse on more than one occasion. Tory MP Michael Fabricant reports:
"A well-known public figure, a distinguished lawyer and knight of the realm, said he was astonished to have witnessed an unprovoked outburst by the Speaker. He had gone to the Speaker’s official apartments at Westminster for a meeting with Mr Bercow when Sir Robert popped his cheery face round the door. According to my dinner party companion, Mr Bercow shouted at Sir Robert: 'Can’t you see I haven’t finished – just **** off!'"
With that, Sir Robert announced his departure and already Bercow is plotting to stitch up the replacement process.
The last twelve months have seen the Speaker lose many things. First, his authority in the chamber and his respect among colleagues. Next, his reputation among the public and his impartiality chairing Commons debates. Last but not least, his recognition of parliamentary process and the confidence of his peers.
Yet, for all he has lost in the last year, Bercow wins on one significant count. He is a more powerful figure than ever before, more determined to strengthen his own power and more able to influence our politics. A few MPs are starting to speak out against this. In the interests of democracy, we can only hope others do too.