John Bercow at the 2014 State Opening of Parliament. Photo: Getty
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John Bercow is becoming dangerously outflanked over Commons clerk row

The Speaker’s appointment of Carol Mills, the secretary of the department of parliamentary services in Canberra, has caused resistance even from his allies.

John Bercow has always been the marmite man – MPs either love him or hate him, with very few sitting on the fence. It’s been unusual, then, to see him as such a uniting force over the past few days. Unfortunately for the Speaker, the common cause has been the opposition to his proposed appointment of Carol Mills as the House of Commons clerk.

It would be easy to think that the latest furore is part of the usual rough and tumble that comes when you have a Speaker who is disliked personally by a sizeable number of MPs from the governing party. But, in truth, the Mills row has taken Bercow into new and dangerous territory.

Since his election five years ago, Bercow has swiped aside any challenges to his position, notwithstanding the fervent desire of many Tory MPs to unseat him. His saving grace so far has been that, amid all the personal sniping, he had been thought to be doing a pretty decent job, particularly in standing up for backbenchers’ rights. Many MPs also recognised that Bercow seemed to have a genuine love for Parliament, even if it did come second to the sound of his own voice.

That is why his proposed appointment of Mills, who is widely thought to lack the necessary experience to do the job of clerk properly, is so incendiary. This time, the resistance is not coming from the usual suspects. Instead, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who even went as far as proposing Bercow for re-election as Speaker after the 2010 poll, is one of those speaking out. Margaret Beckett – who initially ran against Bercow as Speaker, but whose supporters flocked to Bercow en masse once she withdrew – is another who has turned against his proposal.

Anyone who thinks that this public resistance is likely to make him change his mind is in for a rude awakening, not least because to back down now would be a humiliating reversal. Bercow's instinct is always to dig in his heels when he faces opposition. Like a cornered animal, he snarls and lashes out – there’s certainly no chance of him rolling over for someone to tickle his tummy.  But this is a real political weakness, because in seeking to punish anyone who disagrees with him, rather than trying to broker a middle way, he only makes the situation worse for himself. From such small acorns of dislike, great enmities grow. No wonder that, having originally fallen out back in 2005, David Cameron still, as one aide told me, “spits blood” at the mention of Bercow’s name.

The Mills episode threatens to highlight the Speaker’s combative side to a whole new audience of MPs, and could well erode significant support amongst members who had been won over. Meanwhile, it will act as a lightning rod for the “anyone but Bercow” camp, who have been waiting for a moment to pounce, and could well make some of their more ambivalent colleagues think that there is a point to what they’re saying. After all, the appointment of Mills comes across as a power grab, which threatens to undermine the institution Bercow is meant to love.

Until now, I’ve always thought that talk of unseating Bercow has been over-hyped, but the Speaker is becoming dangerously outflanked. If MPs think he can’t be trusted to protect the Commons, and with a group of plotters waiting in the wings, he could be vulnerable when the House votes to re-elect him after the 2015 election. He will be particularly worried if the Conservatives win a majority. If they do, David Cameron might be tempted to capitalise on these concerns by taking the marmite man and making him toast.

Bobby Friedman is the author of “Bercow, Mr Speaker: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses