Speaker cornered

John Bercow’s attempts to reform parliament are being threatened by a small cabal of right-wing Tory

In a speech to the Hansard Society on 30 November, the new Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, said he aimed to "dynamite the past arrangements . . . that allowed the expenses disaster to take place . . . with as much vigour as Guy Fawkes". At the same time, however, he himself was being made the target of a latter-day parliamentary plot.

Five months previously, Bercow had beaten nine other candidates to the sacred post of Speaker on a reforming, "clean break" platform. Despite criticism over alleged claims for £45,000 to modernise the Speaker's residence for his children, he was soon showing signs of living up to that mandate. Defying pressure to do otherwise, he backed the "rough justice" of Thomas Legg's retrospective limits on claims. Bercow also set about strengthening the legislature against the over-mighty executive, pressing for elected select committee chairs, backing Friday (and September) sittings and, from his first day in the post, speeding up questions in the House.

It is often said that Bercow's support in last June's election came largely from the Labour side of the House; however, a number of Conservatives who voted for other candidates admire his record to date. Even David Cameron, recently hostile, has backed Bercow, and has demanded that Conservatives in the Speaker's Buckingham constituency give him their full support against his challenger Nigel Farage, of the UK Independence Party. The former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind speaks for many when he tells me: "Although I did not vote for Speaker Bercow I believe he is carrying out his responsibilities in a conscientious and highly competent manner. It would, in my view, be the height of folly, and grossly unfair, to try and dismiss him after only a few months in office."

It's personal

Yet on the Tory back benches lurks a rogue band of backwoodsmen determined to do just that. Two of their number, Christopher Chope and Greg Knight, sit on the Commons procedure committee, which some observers expect to call for a fresh election by secret ballot for Speaker in the next parliament.

What are the rebels' motives? Chope and Knight are joined in their campaign against Bercow by Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail's parliamentary sketch-writer, and Nadine Dorries - known in the corridors of Westminster as "Mad Nad" - who has said: "I for one will be studying the procedure to call a Speaker re-election . . . and will have [it] engrained on my heart [sic] ready to go when the Conservative Party take power." It is rumoured that the plotters' choice to replace Bercow is Frank Field, a favourite of the Tory right ever since he urged Margaret Thatcher to remain in office in 1990.

Chope and his fellow conspirators have never forgiven Bercow for a "conversion" that drove the one-time Monday Club member to describe his party as "racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-youth". They saw a further betrayal in his willingness to oversee a government review of services for special needs children in 2007.

But the animus against the Speaker is also personal. It is little known, for example, that Chope sponsored Bercow when the latter first joined the list of prospective parliamentary candidates. Tory MPs say Chope is "obsessed" with the fact that Bercow's wife, Sally - despite going on to stand as a Labour councillor - attended his alma mater, Marlborough. She was vilified on the right for giving a refreshingly candid interview last month, in which she confessed to binge drinking and having slept with more than one man when in her twenties. The faux horror this provoked masked real political anger about the intriguing couple. As Dorries has said: "John Bercow's wife is reported to be a socialist. Does this matter? I think it does, a great deal."

According to critics of this rebellious cabal, there is also an even less noble motive at work here: simple snobbery. MPs have overheard Bercow described as an "oik" and "son of a minicab driver" - something of which he is proud. The rebels complain that Bercow is silencing them more in the House, though it is the more boisterous, public-school-educated MPs who cause most of the commotion that alienates the public. As one state-educated Tory MP tells me: "I thought these people learned at school to be magnanimous in victory, and gracious in defeat. They are bad losers."

Sources close to the Speaker's office even whisper of a strain of Tory anti-Semitism (Ber­cow is Jewish), a stain on the party of Benjamin Disraeli familiar to any reader of, say, Alan Clark's diaries. To his credit, however, Cameron welcomed the "milestone" of the "first person of Jewish faith" to be Speaker.

There is another question here. As the constitutional expert and Conservative life peer Philip Norton points out, no Speaker since Charles Manners Sutton in 1835 has been removed and denied re-election. "If a Speaker is denied re-election, what then happens to the defeated Speaker?" He would have to go to the Lords, Norton says. "If John Bercow were to be denied re-election at the start of the parliament, then there would have to be a by-election in Buckingham."

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.

James Macintyre is the political correspondent of the New Statesman


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James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State