Teenage life was unkind to John Bercow. Short, precocious and tormented by severe acne, he was easy prey for bullies thanks to his frailties and eccentricities. Classmates at his north London comprehensive threw him into the school pond, so he could “be with the other amphibians”.
The young Bercow would have seemed an unlikely candidate to be elected to high office by his peers – not least as Speaker of the House of Commons. Unlikelier still might have been the suggestion that the playground outcast would one day himself be denounced as a bully.
Yet, in recent months, Bercow has been labelled just that. Accused of bullying two of his former private secretaries, the Speaker, who was elected in 2009, faces the most challenging – and personally damaging – episode of his four decades in politics.
Bercow’s temperament has long been the subject of sotto voce intrigue among those working in parliament, but in March it became headline news. He was named by Newsnight as the most senior of three MPs accused of bullying Commons staff. Kate Emms was reportedly moved from Bercow’s office after lodging a formal complaint about his behaviour. Her immediate predecessor, Angus Sinclair, has offered similar testimony, alleging that the Speaker physically intimidated him.
Bercow denies all allegations of bullying and, at the time of writing, remains in the chair. He has defied controversy before and has privately made clear he intends to do so again.
There are signs, however, that this time could be different. Theresa May took the unusual step of intervening after Sinclair’s account emerged, and said the investigations should be “properly investigated”. David Leakey, a former Black Rod, compared Bercow to the disgraced Harvey Weinstein. But despite losing the air war over his alleged misconduct, the Speaker could yet survive.
Born in 1963, the self-described “Jewboy son of a taxi driver” grew up in Edgware, north London. Though the grandson of Romanian-Jewish immigrants, Bercow’s lodestar was Enoch Powell. His student days at the University of Essex were devoted to a reactionary strain of right-wing politics. Contemporaries have described him as “pretty much universally despised” and “always attacking left-wingers, gays and feminists”.
As a member of the far-right Monday Club, Bercow called for a “programme of assisted repatriation” for immigrants. He later became the last chairman of the notoriously strident Federation of Conservative Students.
In 2012, he offered a mea culpa to this magazine that chimes with some MPs’ explanation of his conduct as Speaker: “Possibly the fact that I was physically quite feeble… attracted me to that idea of a very authoritative and aggressive version of Conservative politics.”
After his election as the MP for Buckingham in 1997, Bercow was appointed to the Tory front bench, but rebellions over drugs policy and gay rights alienated him from the leadership. In 2002 he resigned as a shadow minister to vote to allow same-sex couples to adopt. Such was his embrace of liberal causes that Bercow was considered a likely defector to Labour under Gordon Brown.
Though Bercow has insisted he never considered crossing the floor, it was arguably Labour who delivered him the speakership. The move was described as the “last hurrah of a dying Labour government” by Nadine Dorries, one of Bercow’s Tory adversaries, and cemented his status as a traitor among former colleagues.
His drive to reform the arcane practices of the Commons has delighted liberals but enraged traditionalists. The latter’s objections to Bercow range from allowing male MPs to speak without wearing ties in the Commons chamber to his pompous interventions in debate, as well as his opposition to Donald Trump and support for Remain in the EU referendum.
Some Tories accuse him of a pathological bias against his former party, in part inspired by his wife, Sally, a passionate Labour supporter and one-time Celebrity Big Brother contestant. Bercow has dismissed such criticism as “cowardly” and “downmarket”.
The strength of the antagonism towards the Speaker is, perversely, a problem for those who wish to see him ousted. It is far too easy for both Bercow and his allies on the Labour benches to dismiss calls for his resignation as a cynical Conservative plot.
Some Tories who would be expected to join the battle to depose Bercow are disinclined to do so, given his usefulness to the back benches. Ministers are now summoned to the chamber to explain their decisions far more regularly than in past parliaments.
In 2015, a bid by then prime minister David Cameron, Bercow’s former tennis doubles partner, to oust him was defeated. The Speaker, who pledged to serve no more than nine years in the role, has since suggested “the backbenchers’ champion” as his epitaph. With disquiet growing, however, a rather less charitable one could yet be found.
This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran