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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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.