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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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