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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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories