Sometimes in life, you have to take a side. Today is one of those days. I like Sally Bercow.
The woman does not give a damn. Some people court controversy. She ravages it. Some stand up to the man. She wades into him with a knuckleduster. Some flout convention. Sally Bercow batters it into submission with a blunt instrument.
Imagine. Your husband is elected to a position that requires, above all else, the perception of political neutrality. So you start piling into the government of the day on Twitter. You are criticised for being too high-profile. So you seek refuge in the studio of Have I Got News For You. You’re accused of being a “binge-drinking ladette” who “downed two bottles of wine a day and had one-night stands”. So you strip naked, drape yourself in a sheet, and splash yourself all over the Standard, breathlessly exclaiming, “I never realised how sexy I would find living under Big Ben with the bells chiming.”
There’s been an “ooops, she did it again” tone to the latest “Bercow Blunder”. Oooops? “Hey, this isn’t the WI meeting; and you’re Ian Hislop! Damn, I meant to tweet, ‘Aren’t the courage and humility of the Egyptian people affirming’, but it came out, ‘David Cameron’s just a merchant of spin’.”
Sally Bercow may be many things, but she’s no accidental tourist to Westminster controversy. Each of her “gaffes” is too neatly aligned with personal criticism. They’re her rebuttal strategy.
She needs one. Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail’s (usually) brilliantly acerbic sketchwriter, wrote: “The duties of hostess weigh heavily on ‘Sally the Alley’, as she was known in her days as a loose-knickered trollop.” If you’re drawing that kind of fire it calls for more than an ability simply to turn the other cheek.
Mrs Bercow’s critics feel she’s been showing a little too much cheek. They fall into three camps: “She’s using her husband’s position to shamelessly promote herself”, “She’s embarrassing her husband” and “She’s embarrassing his office, and without the office of Speaker the heavens will fall”.
It’s true that if Sally Bercow wasn’t married to the Speaker of the House of Commons we probably would never have heard of her. Attractive, ambitious, publicity-savvy women rarely make headway in British politics, never mind the Labour Party. And her successful career in advertising would also have counted against her. Had she been, say, a miner, she may have been in with a shout.
The charge of encircling the Speaker in uncharacteristic controversy also carries some merit. John Bercow is universally admired on all sides of the House. The understated, unfussy manner in which he manages proceedings has won plaudits from former political friends and foes alike. The health minister Simon Burns, the Conservative Chief Whip, Patrick McLoughlin, and the backbench Tory MP Mark Pritchard are just three of those to have praised his deft management of Commons business.
Even David Cameron is said to welcome the firm but fair way he repeatedly interrupts him just as he is about to deliver a killer riposte to Ed Miliband. It is against that background that Sally Bercow’s perceived indiscretions must be judged.
In fairness, many of those who criticise the Speaker’s wife do so not from malice, but out of a genuine desire to uphold respect for her husband’s office and the role it plays in underpinning British parliamentary democracy. Here, for example, is what Quentin Letts says about John Bercow himself, “one-time ultra-right-wing fusilier of the Nelson Mandela-taunting brigade, now an ostentatious and gloopy champion of diversity, abortion and all things politically correct”. OK, but here are his views on the previous incumbent, Michael Martin:
Up stands the Speaker to bring clarity to proceedings and within minutes the Commons is bickering and a-boil, MPs shouting at the old purple proboscis, urging him for God’s sake to go.
Right, well. And this is what he thought about Martin’s predecessor, Betty Boothroyd: “her record betrays timidity rather than temerity, and inactivity rather than industry”.
Sally Bercow is a parliamentary infidel. She has entered the very inner sanctum of this cloistered world. What’s worse, she has done it not on merit, but on the arm of her husband. What’s even worse than that, he’s a diminutive husband, with a slightly cocksure and arrogant manner. And what’s worst of all, she’s got a slightly cocksure and arrogant manner herself – a combination of Victoria Beckham, Cherie Blair and Caroline Flint.
The Speaker’s Wife. Not a Wag but a Swag (that’s “speakers’ wives and girlfriends”).
And frankly, good luck to her. It’s great that she’s opted to be controversial rather than dutiful. I like the way she’s chosen to be demonstrative, rather than demure. It’s refreshing, if a bit kinky, that she doesn’t sit quietly in the corner, but swings from the chandeliers while the bells of Big Ben are chiming.
Sally Bercow is fighting the power the best way she knows how. Ultimately, there can be only one winner. But she’ll keep fighting to the end.