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
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.