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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.