In praise of Sally Bercow

The Speaker’s wife has opted to be controversial rather than dutiful. And we should celebrate.

Sometimes in life, you have to take a side. Today is one of those days. I like Sally Bercow.

The woman does not give a damn. Some people court controversy. She ravages it. Some stand up to the man. She wades into him with a knuckleduster. Some flout convention. Sally Bercow batters it into submission with a blunt instrument.

Imagine. Your husband is elected to a position that requires, above all else, the perception of political neutrality. So you start piling into the government of the day on Twitter. You are criticised for being too high-profile. So you seek refuge in the studio of Have I Got News For You. You're accused of being a "binge-drinking ladette" who "downed two bottles of wine a day and had one-night stands". So you strip naked, drape yourself in a sheet, and splash yourself all over the Standard, breathlessly exclaiming, "I never realised how sexy I would find living under Big Ben with the bells chiming."

There's been an "ooops, she did it again" tone to the latest "Bercow Blunder". Oooops? "Hey, this isn't the WI meeting; and you're Ian Hislop! Damn, I meant to tweet, 'Aren't the courage and humility of the Egyptian people affirming', but it came out, 'David Cameron's just a merchant of spin'."

Sally Bercow may be many things, but she's no accidental tourist to Westminster controversy. Each of her "gaffes" is too neatly aligned with personal criticism. They're her rebuttal strategy.

She needs one. Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail's (usually) brilliantly acerbic sketchwriter, wrote: "The duties of hostess weigh heavily on 'Sally the Alley', as she was known in her days as a loose-knickered trollop." If you're drawing that kind of fire it calls for more than an ability simply to turn the other cheek.

Mrs Bercow's critics feel she's been showing a little too much cheek. They fall into three camps: "She's using her husband's position to shamelessly promote herself", "She's embarrassing her husband" and "She's embarrassing his office, and without the office of Speaker the heavens will fall".

It's true that if Sally Bercow wasn't married to the Speaker of the House of Commons we probably would never have heard of her. Attractive, ambitious, publicity-savvy women rarely make headway in British politics, never mind the Labour Party. And her successful career in advertising would also have counted against her. Had she been, say, a miner, she may have been in with a shout.

The charge of encircling the Speaker in uncharacteristic controversy also carries some merit. John Bercow is universally admired on all sides of the House. The understated, unfussy manner in which he manages proceedings has won plaudits from former political friends and foes alike. The health minister Simon Burns, the Conservative Chief Whip, Patrick McLoughlin, and the backbench Tory MP Mark Pritchard are just three of those to have praised his deft management of Commons business.

Even David Cameron is said to welcome the firm but fair way he repeatedly interrupts him just as he is about to deliver a killer riposte to Ed Miliband. It is against that background that Sally Bercow's perceived indiscretions must be judged.

In fairness, many of those who criticise the Speaker's wife do so not from malice, but out of a genuine desire to uphold respect for her husband's office and the role it plays in underpinning British parliamentary democracy. Here, for example, is what Quentin Letts says about John Bercow himself, "one-time ultra-right-wing fusilier of the Nelson Mandela-taunting brigade, now an ostentatious and gloopy champion of diversity, abortion and all things politically correct". OK, but here are his views on the previous incumbent, Michael Martin:

Up stands the Speaker to bring clarity to proceedings and within minutes the Commons is bickering and a-boil, MPs shouting at the old purple proboscis, urging him for God's sake to go.

Right, well. And this is what he thought about Martin's predecessor, Betty Boothroyd: "her record betrays timidity rather than temerity, and inactivity rather than industry".

Sally Bercow is a parliamentary infidel. She has entered the very inner sanctum of this cloistered world. What's worse, she has done it not on merit, but on the arm of her husband. What's even worse than that, he's a diminutive husband, with a slightly cocksure and arrogant manner. And what's worst of all, she's got a slightly cocksure and arrogant manner herself – a combination of Victoria Beckham, Cherie Blair and Caroline Flint.

The Speaker's Wife. Not a Wag but a Swag (that's "speakers' wives and girlfriends").

And frankly, good luck to her. It's great that she's opted to be controversial rather than dutiful. I like the way she's chosen to be demonstrative, rather than demure. It's refreshing, if a bit kinky, that she doesn't sit quietly in the corner, but swings from the chandeliers while the bells of Big Ben are chiming.

Sally Bercow is fighting the power the best way she knows how. Ultimately, there can be only one winner. But she'll keep fighting to the end.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.