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.”
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