Why Buckingham must re-elect John Bercow

The case for the reforming Speaker, and the case against another disgraceful move to oust him.

Some very strange things are happening in Buckingham.

The sitting MP is John Bercow. He is also Speaker of the House of Commons. There is a perfectly just tradition that the Speaker is not challenged, and even though a few right-wing Tory backwoodsmen have been plotting undemocratically in Westminster to remove him, they are estranged from their leader. Indeed, David Cameron has said:

John Bercow is a hard-working constituency MP, who continues to take up cases and support local issues. So in this election I would certainly urge all Conservatives -- and, indeed, supporters of all parties and of none -- to vote for the Speaker, John Bercow.

I wrote about the isolated Tory plot and about Bercow's reforms to parliament here. And although I recommend that you read it all, I will just post here the conclusion:

Those agitating for Bercow's removal are few in number, but we should not underestimate their determination. Were their plot to succeed, it would not just remove a reforming Speaker, but threaten parliamentary democracy itself.

Now, however, there is a new threat, from two mavericks, who appear to be trying to take advantage of the anti-politics mood by targeting a man who, ironically, is parliament's best hope for reform following the expenses crisis. Bercow is being got at from the right by the blazer-and-cravate smoothie Nigel Farage, of the Dad's Army party, Ukip. And from the left, we have John Stevens, a former Liberal Democrat and a passionate pro-European.

Now, as it happens, I have met both these challengers, and they are amiable and intelligent. In any other circumstances -- and any other constituency -- they would deserve a decent shot at entering the Commons. But by going after Bercow, they are not playing fair. Farage cannot expect his pressure-group-party to be taken seriously if it seeks to breach an important convention adopted by all three main parties.

As for Stevens, he has just been rebuked by the Liberal Democrats for seeking to claim the support of the Lib Dem spokesman for Buckingham, Marie-Louise Rossi. The chair of South Central Region Liberal Democrats, Steve Sollitt, has issued a statement saying:

We understand that a candidate in the Buckingham constituency has been circulating a leaflet which implies our support. This comment had not been signed off by either our parliamentary spokesperson, Marie-Louise Rossi, or by the Buckingham Constituency Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats are not supporting John Stevens or any other candidate in the Buckingham constituency.

Meanwhile, posters are mysteriously springing up across Buckingham -- "Get Flipper Bercow Out" -- without any official imprint. There is the air of dirty tricks around.

Now, I don't intend to make declarations of support in this campaign. But I am in line with convention by coming to the defence of the Speaker, who anyway is the last person who should be targeted by those seeking to ride the wave of an expenses backlash. Back in May 2009, before he became Speaker, I outlined the progressive case for John Bercow, a man of great independence of thought and a fundamental sense of fairness, and I believe it still stands:

Many feel that Bercow's bold approach to his party could be applied to parliament, and badly needed it is, too.

In January 2002, as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Bercow wrote a provocative New Year letter to his Buckingham constituency party. Many voters, he said, saw the Tories as "racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-youth". This observation marked the near-completion of his conversion from right-wing Conservative student and member of the anti-immigration Monday Club to ultramoderniser, years before David Cameron claimed the title of Tory "change" candidate.

Bercow's journey was influenced by his partnership with Sally Illman, an egalitarian Labour sympathiser whom he married in 2002. Yet it did not begin there. Some Tory MPs blame Illman, or "that woman", for his views, but his conversion was first made public on 10 February 2000, when he gave a 13-minute speech in favour of reducing the homosexual age of consent to 16. A month before his wedding in December 2002, Bercow resigned from the front bench over Iain Duncan Smith's decision to oppose the rights of unmarried and homosexual couples to adopt. His alienation from the party intensified when, in 2007, the government asked him to review services for children and young people with special speech, language and communication needs. Since then, he has kept a relatively low profile, becoming as resented by Tory traditionalists as he is admired by progressives in other parties.

. . . For all his despair at the pomp and ceremony of the Palace of Westminster, Bercow remains a House of Commons man to the core. He is a long-time believer in reform, not just in the wake of the expenses scandal, from which he has emerged (so far) unscathed, but in terms of wider, fundamental change. Since his departure from front-line party politics he has focused partly on redressing the balance between the overmighty executive and the legislature, calling in 2005 for select committees to be strengthened by election.

One admirer on the left says Bercow is "a genuine liberal -- as opposed to a paint-spray liberal". But as well as being socially liberal, he believes . . . that "modernisation" concerns fundamental issues such as tax, redistribution and immigration. The son of a minicab driver, with no private wealth, Bercow is, to many of his colleagues, "not one of us". Already there is a campaign to undermine him, led by Tory MPs who are keen to talk up the need for an "interim" speaker, possibly Ann Widdecombe. However, such a compromise would not produce the fresh start needed. These same Tories say that Bercow is too young and hasn't been in the House long enough. Yet, at 46, he is four years older than his party's candidate for prime minister, and became an MP four years earlier, in 1997.

. . . When he wrote his damning constituency letter in 2002, Bercow added that his party was "in worse shape than ever before in my lifetime or yours". Today, the same could be said of the standing of parliament. Traditional Tory hostility to Bercow may in the end prevent him from becoming Speaker, but that he is the true change candidate is not in doubt.

To conclude, I would only echo the words of David Cameron, and say that voters in Buckingham of all parties and none should re-elect John Bercow, who has a great plan of reform that Westminster badly needs. They should do so for the sake of his constituency and for the sake of the future of our national politics.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.