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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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear