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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle