Bercow's last stand?

Ukip's Nigel Farage is fighting a fierce campaign in Buckingham to defeat the Speaker, John Bercow.

Deep in the Buckinghamshire countryside something is stirring. Even before the General Election campaign begins, leaflets are beginning to drop through letter boxes and the letters pages of local newspapers are unusually lively. This is natural small "c" conservative territory, it always has been bar a brief sojourn for the "bouncing Czech", Robert Maxwell, and a Labour MP when the Buckingham constituency included Bletchley, once also home to the war time Enigma code breakers. So Conservative territory it may be, but the local MP, John Bercow is now Mr Speaker, so a Tory representative no longer, and all of a sudden he faces an insurgency.

In what is promising to be one of the most closely fought and bitter General Elections in living memory, the upcoming 'Battle for Buckingham' is set to provide colour and entertainment in equal measure. Two prominent figures are squaring up to Mr Speaker Bercow, and seemingly underpinning their challenge are serious constitutional issues, and bubbling away underneath all of that, is the national sense of outrage at the Westminster gravy train. Speaker Bercow for his part will doubtlessly affect to swat away these imprudent arrivistes, in the knowledge that many think he has served the area well.

Step forward then, Nigel Farage, the pin striped telegenic of UKIP fame, who has recently set up camp in some well appointed offices in Buckingham town centre, and who recently took charge of an ill fated UKIP attempt to wrest control of a local council seat from the Tories. Step forward also, former MEP turned independent candidate, John Stevens, whose attack on John Bercow's expense claims has been plastered across local newspaper front pages in recent days. Farage says of the expenses row "We are witnessing the last remaining reels of a particularly grisly horror movie". He has pronounced Speaker Bercow as "Mr Very Pleased with himself", and has promised voters that he will have "a drink in every pub in the constituency". This would amount to some twenty pints a day on conservative estimates. This promise has galvanised John Bercow into responding "I accept that sadly some now see politics as a bit of a lark - perhaps politicians have only themselves to blame. But Buckingham deserves better than being treated as a glorified pub crawl or media event."

The old convention says that Mr Speaker stands unchallenged by the main political parties, and while Labour and the Liberal Democrats are sticking to this, one of the main charges of both Farage and Stevens is that Buckingham, like an old Rotten Borough, would otherwise be deprived of having both a choice of candidates - and an active MP - in the House of Commons. John Stevens has taken this a stage further saying, "Mr Bercow has made no attempt to justify his abuse of the expenses system, including his avoidance of Capital Gains Tax, through house "flipping", which has continued even after his election as Speaker on a supposed platform of reform. It is for this reason that he is a symbol of this discredited Parliament, and must be defeated". Stevens has enlisted the support of "Flipper", the dolphin, the children's television character, and promises that "Flipper", a man dressed in a dolphin's costume, will be making numerous public appearances to ram his message home

This part of the world would normally be described as leafy - if it were Summer time. It is certainly bucolic. I once ran as a Labour candidate against John Bercow, and Ken Livingstone up for the day, nasally announced "there are more sheep here than voters!" Later we almost lost the late Michael Foot on a roundabout, and Tony Benn was politely guided to a Church Hall meeting by an old Shire Tory who had been busy polishing his Bentley. This is also the territory of the Bicester and Whaddon Hunt, which once registered little local interest, but since the hunt ban seems to have become very popular with cussed locals who don't like being bossed about. Ironically, when Tony Blair and his wife Cherie came house hunting in the area, they alighted first on the forbidding Winslow Hall in the small town of the same name, until, as local folklore goes, someone told them that the Boxing Day Hunt meets outside the place.

Tony and Cherie settled on Sir John Gielgud's old pile a few miles away as the crow flies, and would be candidates will doubtlessly be beating a path to their doors as the election approaches. As they will no doubt to Waddesdon Manor, home to the Rothschild's, and apparently in whose grounds Business Secretary Lord Mandelson went on a shoot not so long ago. Who or what he shot remains a matter of local conjecture. Waddesdon Manor is famous for many things, not least an ill fated Foreign Office inspired stop-over for a French President who was reportedly furious when he discovered how much French art and antiques were in Buckinghamshire, rather than Paris, and also as backdrop for the film Carry On Don't Lose Your Head.

If anyone ever makes a film of the 'Battle for Buckingham", perhaps they will call it "Carry on Canvassing", for in addition to the Blair's, there are the Duncan Smiths who preside over the Cottesloe Estate around Swanbourne. As befits a Country Estate, all of the house doors in Swanbourne are painted olive green, so plenty of scope here for a few mistakes involving candidates and leaflets. Not for nothing was Iain Duncan Smith known as the "quiet man". Sometimes he may be spotted nipping incognito into an Indian takeaway in nearby Winslow, to order his regular Chicken Tikka Biryani. Once when the Conservatives did well in local elections, he ordered a whole stack of Chicken Tikka Biriyanis. Given IDS' fame and notoriety, I tried for some time to persuade the local restaurant owner to put up a picture of him, but was told that customers might get him mixed up with the late Panchen Lama of Tibet. Either way, IDS and his family have certainly added to the gaiety of life, for as pubs are boarded up the length and breadth of the land, the Cottesloe Estate boasts a new pub, the Betsy Wynne, where the candidates will be able to quaff a few ales at the end of a long day on the stump. Perhaps they will spot IDS.

But Buckingham is not all Toffs and big houses. To the South of the constituency is Cheddington, a railway stop, where the Royal Mail train was famously stopped by Ronnie Biggs and the 'Great Train robbers' forty odd years ago. And there are plenty of voters, not so steeped in the Conservative Party who have made the trek out of London over the past decades, bringing their voting habits with them. New estates ribbon Buckingham, Winslow and Haddenham, and coming into the constituency for the first time is Princes Risborough, which may prove fertile ground for the would be Bercow challengers.

If the former Chinese Premier Chou En Lai when famously asked about the effects of the French Revolution could respond to the question "It is too early to tell", only a fool could pretend to predict what might happen in Buckingham in a month or so. On face value, John Bercow has a seemingly impregnable majority with over 57% of the vote at the last Election and it will be difficult to dislodge him. But as Speaker he cannot rely on the local Conservative Party machine, and much of it will be despatched by Tory Central Office - no friends of Mr Speaker there - to try and drive out Milton Keynes' surviving Labour MP. He will be able to rely on a network of Conservative district and county councillors, as well as those who think he is an assiduous MP, or those that think he is being sniped at unfairly. Bercow says "Each of the three main parties supports my re-election campaign, and David Cameron has urged all Conservative voters, as well as voters of other parties, and no, to vote for me".

But will Nigel Farage be able to break through the glass ceiling that is UKIP's core Europhobic constituency, and what of John Stevens' intention of securing enough Labour, Liberal Democrat and disenchanted Conservative voters, to come through the middle? Stevens' is aware that voters will also want positive reason to vote "for" rather than simply "against". "I will, in due course be setting out where I stand on a whole series of key issues", he says "from the desperate need for constitutional reform to the war in Afghanistan, as well as local issues such as planning and the pot holed roads".

So much in the end may boil down to whether voters vote, and if they do, what will motivate them. John Bercow is accused of "flipping" his property, avoiding capital gains tax and claiming the maximum amount of MPs allowances. Even in relatively well heeled Buckingham, this rubs. Scarcely a week has gone by without fresh, lurid national headlines, involving Mr Speaker's £45000 spend on Mr Speaker's grace and favour flat, the employment of a press officer at a cost to the taxpayer of £107,000, and the hire of an accountant to fill in his returns - at our expense - of a £1000.

All of this is taken from a leaflet that has recently dropped through the door, courtesy of Mr John Stevens, who is also something of a Civil War buff. If I am reading it, so are many others in Buckingham, and some of them will recall that this part of the World once produced fine Cromwellian Lieutenants such as John Hampden. Their revolt was as much about King as it was the rotten Parliaments, and when it comes to ripe rottenness, there is not much to compare to our Parliament today. If former Speaker Michael Martin came to be seen as symbolic of that Parliament, John Bercow to his critics at least, has played his part in the Commons' expense claims culture.

The new 'Battle for Buckingham' is about to be joined!