How John Bercow always manages to pull adversity from the jaws of success

The Speaker's biographer doubts Bercow will be remembered as the “backbenchers' Speaker”.

When John Bercow was forced to announce that he was giving up around half a million pounds of his Speaker’s pension last week, he could have been forgiven for thinking, “not again”. Or, perhaps, if I had asked him about it, he might have said, “The thing is, Bobby,” (he has a habit of making a point of pronouncing people’s names very slowly and deliberately whenever he is talking to them), “this is an unfortunate concatenation that I perceive as part of the inexorable misfortune that must befall me”, or some such opaque phraseology.

Because the sad thing about Bercow is that he always manages to pull adversity from the jaws of success. Despite the many positive points about his career and life: the safe seat at 34, the Speakership at 46, and the glamorous wife and loving family, his enjoyment of them ends up being tainted.

The tumult that has followed him around as Speaker makes this abundantly clear. Although Bercow told Jemima Khan he wants to be remembered as the “backbenchers' Speaker”, that won’t happen. For right or wrong, he’ll be known as the Speaker whom his own party didn’t want, forever fretting about being unseated. No wonder that on the day after his election, Bercow’s temper flashed before the TV cameras as he snapped at ITN’s Tom Bradby for asking how many Conservatives had voted for him. Even in his moment of triumph, the negatives were the narrative. And that’s before we even get started on Sally, whose reality TV career has caused Bercow untold private angst, however doggedly he defends her in public.

But these are not one-offs. Throughout his life, Bercow has always been a man whom others love to hate. In person, he’s hardly the devil incarnate – he’s good company in fact - so what lies behind this enmity?

Having researched his life to write a biography of him, my impression is that the problem lies with Bercow’s view of himself as an outsider. It started at school: as a prodigiously clever child with oratorical flourishes akin to a latter-day Disraeli, Bercow found the other kids even less understanding than the MPs who jeered Disraeli on his first outing in the Commons in 1837. Instead of quietly doing his best regardless, Bercow tried to fight back by writing down other children’s mistakes and reading them back to them, and by boasting that one day he’d be in the Cabinet.

At Essex University, as one of a handful of right-wingers (and, boy, was he sound back in the 80s, or “more right-wing than Marie-Antoinette”, as one acquaintance told me) he was the only person willing to argue back against the left in debates at the students union. For all that he professed to love the rough and tumble – even when one girl emptied her pint over his head – in truth he was often so nervous that he vomited before speaking. The theme was set, and matters only worsened when Bercow then had to abandon his dream of becoming a barrister due to a lack of cash.

Unfortunately, this sense of exclusion, combined with an unerring belief in his abilities, has led Bercow to sabotage his own attempts to reach out to those who hold the key to the inner sanctum. In his mind, you’re either on his side, or you’re against him, and so when people don’t come round to his way of thinking quickly enough, his instinct is to attack, not press for peace. Living like that tends to suck all the fun out of life: the dictator is usually the man with the most bodyguards.

Over the years, he has taken on all-comers, normally when he felt his talents were not being sufficiently appreciated. He publicly criticised Ann Widdecombe when she was his boss, declared that Iain Duncan-Smith’s chances of winning an election were akin to “finding an Eskimo in the desert,” and told Michael Howard that he was “sinister”.

Then came David Cameron, of whom Bercow said, “the combination of Eton, hunting, shooting, and lunch at White’s is not helpful when you are trying to appeal to millions of ordinary people.” That personal attack finished off Bercow in the Tory Party, and so he turned to the Speakership. But, still, instead of keeping quiet (the Speaker is meant to speak only rarely), he turned his ire on the Tory MPs whom he saw as responsible for his exclusion. It’s the needless pot-shots that increase his vulnerability: calling Simon Burns “as boring as he is boorish”, telling Tim Loughton to “behave like an adult”, and, most short-sighted of all, falling out with the then government Chief Whip.

As Gore Vidal famously said, “It is not enough to succeed, others must fail.” For Bercow, it is not just a desire to see others fail, but a psychological need to rub their faces in it. It’s a way of showing that he is finally on the inside, but this show of strength only serves to reveal his weakness.

Bobby Friedman is the author of Bercow, Mr Speaker: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party, published by Gibson Square Books. Find him on Twitter as @BobbyFriedman

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow. Photograph: Getty Images
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John Prescott on Labour: “This must be the worst operation I’ve ever seen”

The Labour peer and former deputy prime minister laments his party’s “civil war status”, saying “I wish Momentum would go away”.

I’ve attended a thousand PLP meetings. This must be the worst operation I’ve ever seen. It is more about personality politics than in the past.

The [last] Labour government was successful in most of the issues that we always thought was important to Labour: in the growth of the hospitals, the education system, the economy, people at work. All that was a successful record.

Not that it’s ever mentioned now. It was soured largely by Iraq. That period is almost obliterated by that. So you find present government, or even present leadership, in no way refers to that period of the Labour government. So the real problem is, if you’re disowning the most successful three periods of a Labour government, then you’re in some difficulty as to what you’re replacing it with.

It’s never happened before – it’s open war, civil war, inside the PLP. Some members in the PLP sit there with their social media, already typing out the fight going on to the mass of reporters who are amassed outside and told to come along and report because there’s going to be a big row. All that means we can’t really have unity. The division now is the attack on the leadership. A core who sit in the same places, make the same accusations against the leadership, right or wrong, every bloody week. They do it by a death of a thousand cuts – keep on making the same complaints.

I just think that the PLP is in civil war status. It’s not carrying out what it should do – that is, project Labour’s policies and be supportive of our people in the field.

All this criticism is about removing him. And then what adds to that is when Tom Watson comes along and joins in with this criticism. He’s entitled to do so, but he is the Deputy Leader, for God’s sake – quite different from the way I saw the role as defined; to support the party in a positive way, right. Get out and increase his membership, etc.

And the Leader, he's faced with a really difficult position, because he was elected and had never been a minister before. My heart went out to him when he had to deal with PMQs. Even with my 50 years, I found it impossible and fell on my face a few times.

We have a shadow cabinet now – cor blimey, you can be in the shadow cabinet in 12 months! You do need to have a bit of experience. So that does affect it, without a doubt. Then you get people on one side who refuse to serve in the shadow cabinet criticising the shadow cabinet. If you join the shadow cabinet, you’re a traitor to one cause or the other.

It's how you manage that division. The leadership is critical – for Jeremy to go out and do all of these things when he’s not been a minister is difficult. I think he’s been improving in doing the job. But frankly, it gets into people’s minds in a very short period of time, whether they think you’re the leader or not. And we do have a dilemma. It’s difficult for him – he’s reaching out a bit now, but almost the list has been drawn. I can’t see these people coming across now and uniting in the name of the party, supporting our people out in the elections. If you can’t unite the party, how the hell can you carry the country?

There are problems on the left and problems on the right, but we’ve always managed them – especially in the PLP. Robust arguments. But now it’s the battlefield, and all that comes out is a divided party.

I’m an old Labour man, right, I’m Labour to the core. To sit and watch it waste away its great reputation, what it’s done for our people in the country, and then when our people start stopping to vote for us, you’ve got to ask what’s bloody going wrong.

What Jeremy does is his decision. But he’s made clear he wants to stay. Now, if that stays the same, and the others stay the same, we’re going to have a stalemate divided Labour party – it’s disastrous.

So on the one hand, the PLP could try to be a little bit more supportive, and to recognise the party’s elected a leader, or they can go through the same process come June and call for another election, put it to the vote. They’re the options given to us by our party.

Our bloody country is decimated and we’re talking about the fucking sponsorship rules for the election of leader! I wish Momentum would go away, they’ve given us the same problems we had with Militant. I don’t think they’re as powerful as Militant, but they’re dedicated to the same cause. Their debate is how you change the Labour party.

By Christ, we can't win like this! I’m an old-fashioned type, and I’m proud to have belonged to a team that did win three elections. There was no other leader who did that before. But I don’t put it down to leaders, I put it down to the nature of the party. We’re responsible, not the leaders.

John Prescott is a Labour peer and former deputy leader of the Labour Party.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition