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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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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