John Bercow: what were you thinking?

The Speaker seems to have forgotten what he was elected for

The new Speaker, John Bercow, is reported to have ordered a £20,000 refurbishment of his official grace-and-favour flat in the Palace of Westminster. The Daily Telegraph (who else, eh?) reports on a confidential and detailed note that it has seen:

The confidential document shows that he has ordered redecoration for Speaker's House totalling £20,659.36.

Of this, £3,600 has been spent on fitting locks to the windows and having workmen check that access ducts in the wall panelling are lockable or childproof.

A further £3,880 has been spent on planters to provide additional child safety on the terrace.

One of the two studies is to become a playroom, with £1,087 spent on redecorating it.

Apologists for the Speaker have been quick to defend his spending plans as "child-friendly" and "family-friendly". "It's perfectly justified," one Bercow supporter told me this afternoon. Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, Mike Granatt, who was a spokesman for Bercow's predecessor Michael Martin, said the Speaker's contract required him to live in the flat and it was "not unreasonable that the place should be made safe for his kids".

Hmm. Perhaps John Bercow and his army of fans inside and outside Parliament could explain why having a wife and three kids justifies spending £6,764.30 on a new sofa suite, £760 on window seat cushions and £275 on eight lampshades. Are they special "child-friendly" cushions? Could he not find a sofa suite big enough for five people that cost less than £7,000? Here is one I found at DFS for less than a grand.

Bercow has form on this issue - MPs knew about his alleged "flipping" before they elected him (with Labour MPs backing his candidacy simply to spite David Cameron and the Tories). The Telegraph reports today that he has paid "£6,508 plus VAT to HM Revenue & Customs to cover the tax he could have been asked to pay. He also paid back £1,470.62 that he claimed on his office expenses for accountants' services in helping him complete his tax return."

To borrow from John McCain: "That's not change we can believe in."

In fact, I have long argued, as have others, that reforming Parliament and politics involves much more than electing John Bercow as the new Speaker and having him a don a lounge suit in the Commons. Bercow needs to change the mindset and the mentality of our MPs - and he could start by changing himself.

(Disclaimer: the New Statesman backed John Bercow for Speaker).

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.