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Jemima Khan meets John Bercow: “I’ve never been given to little social cliques”

A natural outsider, John Bercow is a thorn in the side of David Cameron and his friends in the Tory party - and a punchbag for the right-wing press.

John Bercow was always a misfit. The son of a Jewish taxi driver from north London, grandson of a Romanian immigrant called Bercowitch, he was bullied at his local comprehensive for his precocity –while his friends scrapped, he would read the Times. At university, while his friends quoted Monty Python, he would quote Disraeli. He was bullied for being Jewish and for not being Jewish enough (his mother was a convert) as well as for his diminutive size and the teenage affliction of “really very severe acne”.

Today, in off-duty beige chinos, aqua floral shirt, blazer and brown leather brogues, Bercow greets me at the door to his apartment in the Palace of Westminster, his official residence as 157th Speaker of the House of Commons. There can be few grander addresses, and few grander titles. The Speaker of the House of Commons is one of the highest-ranking officials in the country, the First Commoner of the land, and holds one of the most important and best-paid jobs in politics. Bercow presides over parliament from the Speaker’s chair, which resembles a throne, wearing ornamental black-and-gold state robes with a train for ceremonial occasions. No member of the House of Commons, not even the Prime Minister, may speak without the Speaker’s prior permission and he has the power to punish members who do not obey him. It’s a nice two fingers up at the bullies, snobs and anti-Semites he has encountered in his life so far.

Bercow ushers me towards the sitting room. He is warm and scrupulously polite, but formal, talking in that peculiarly mannered style that makes an encounter with him at home feel a bit awkward, like running into the headmaster in the supermarket. We are overwhelmed in the corridor by Sally, his striking, blonde shiksawife, who represents another two fingers up to those who teased him for being short, Jewish, spotty and unsuccessful with women. She is the opposite of him – a giantess, an outspoken Labour activist, a Twitter controversialist and apparently the bane of his political life. Sally bounds up to say hello and laughs, big and brazen, at our banter about troublemaking on Twitter. Bercow looks on delightedly. Then she’s off in a whirlwind, presumably to tend to their three children, who I can hear playing in a room nearby.

There has been an attempt to deformalise the immaculate, oak-panelled sitting room. There are framed holiday snaps of the family dotted around the room, sitting incongruously atop ancient furniture. But, rather like seeing the Speaker in his chinos, the juxtaposition of normal with formal feels a little unnatural.

Bercow settles into an armchair, tucking his feet up beside him, and muses on whether he is still treated as an outsider. “I’ve never been much given to little social cliques. And I’ve never been of that part of the Tory party that was given to dining in clubs and [saying], ‘Shall we meet for a few G&Ts afterwards?’ and that sort of thing.” Bercow is an Edgware boy made good and, like many Tories from that kind of background, he appears deeply suspicious of the “Tory toff” clique, led by the Eton-educated Prime Minister, whose father was chairman of one such club. “There’s still too much of an atmosphere of the club about this place, still this attitude of ‘He’s a decent cove . . .’” As a former Thatcherite who wasn’t public-school-educated and who didn’t go to Oxford or sit for the Bar, he feels there is a sense that the Tory party has been recolonised by the Macmillan-era old guard after successfully being opened up to folk like him under Margaret Thatcher. Though cautious of “being accused of having a chip on his shoulder”, if less so of looking like he is taking an implicit swipe at the Prime Minister’s posse, he concludes: “I would like to see more able people, more people from ordinary backgrounds getting on here.”

It obviously grates that one “down market scribbler” wrote recently, in an article “laced with  snobbery”, that, as the Speaker puts it, “the trouble with Bercow is if he’d gone to a decent school he would have turned out better”. This is a man who, despite his education at the local comprehensive, prides himself on his eloquence and his mastery of the Queen’s English, and who was branded a “pompous prat” by the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries for picking her up on her use of a split infinitive. Dorries tells me that Sally later confided in her that she had “almost divorced him for the same things. She told me he’s not like that any more.” The two have since made their peace after Dorries’s failed attempt to challenge his speakership.

Bercow recounts a shocking story of snobbery and anti-Semitism –which he insists is no more rampant in parliament than elsewhere – when he first entered the House of Commons. “When I first came into the House there was somebody who said to me, who shall remain nameless because it was a private conversation, ‘If I had my way people like you wouldn’t be in parliament.’ He was an aristocratic sort of character, and I said to him, ‘When you say people like me do you mean people like me because I’m lower-class or because I’m Jewish?’, to which he replied, ‘Both.’”

The House of Commons, it turned out, was not so different from the school playground described by his biographer Bobby Friedman, and Bercow was subjected to the same cruel gibes. The Labour MP Stephen Pound joked in the House of Commons that rather than know all the facts, like the then-unmarried Bercow, “personally I’d prefer to have a sex life”. Even after he reached the pinnacle of his career and became Speaker of the House, the public taunts continued. Simon Burns, then a Tory minister of state at the Department of Health, called him a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf”. The muchrepeated legend has it that the Prime Minister then turned this into a joke, telling a room full of lobby journalists that Burns’s driver had inadvertently backed into Bercow’s car in the parliament courtyard. Cameron supposedly said: “Bercow told Burns, ‘I am not happy!’ to which Burns replied, ‘Well, which one [of the Seven Dwarves] are you?’”

Speaker, reincarnated

He insists that gibes about his height have never worried him, though he says that at first Sally was “a bit bothered about it”. But he considers it “really low-grade” to make comments implying that a person is “inferior because he or she is shorter or . . . because that person is especially tall. It’s pathetic.”

The taunts about his acne, however, were more painful, and made him feel “very, very self-conscious”. They persisted throughout his years at the University of Essex, where one left-winger squashed a pizza to the student union noticeboard and labelled it “Portrait of John Bercow”.

The resulting insecurity he felt as a young man may, he says, partly explain his first political act – one that he says he “will regret to my dying day”. Aged 20, Bercow joined the extreme-right-wing Monday Club and, once there, he became secretary of the immigration and repatriation committee. It advocated a scheme of voluntary relocation of blacks and Asians and the scrapping of the Race Relations Act 1976, which prohibited discrimination on the grounds of “colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins”.

The decision to become a member of the club seems inexplicable for the grandson of a Jewish immigrant from Romania who had been offered a new life by the United Kingdom. Bercow now readily concedes that a Jewish person “shouldn’t have been setting foot in a Monday Club meeting”. With a disarming willingness to introspect – “I don’t want to navel-gaze, but . . .” – he ruminates: “Possibly the fact that I was physically quite feeble, a relatively short little fellow, attracted me to that idea of a very authoritative and aggressive version of Conservative politics.”

He adds: “I’m not saying that I had an inadequate Adam’s apple, but I think that sometimes people who aren’t fully formed and fully confident in themselves can be attracted to something which appears to give them a bit of meaning and a sense of purpose. Maybe going to some of those little cliquey meetings made me feel quite important.” The Monday Club offered him a sense of belonging and perhaps a sense that he had become a fully assimilated British citizen, 60 years after his grandfather Jack Bercowitch, the Romanian immigrant, had taken the oath of allegiance.

Bercow’s interest in the Monday Club was sparked by a conversation he’d had with his father after Enoch Powell appeared on television. “Dad said, ‘Well, he’s a much-maligned man, Enoch Powell. He’s a very honourable man and of course he speaks the truth as he sees it and there is a real problem of mass immigration to this country.’

“I don’t wish to speak ill of my late father, who was a good father, but I used to think that no Jewish person could be racist and that’s not strictly true . . . He genuinely did fear that the large influx that had taken place by the Seventies threatened social cohesion.”

The young Bercow came to agree, and was “mesmerised” by Powell’s oratory. “I went off and heard Enoch [speak] at one point, and I was very, very impressed. I read about what a brilliantly educated man he was, I read books of speeches of his, and so on. My father tended to take the view ‘let him explore and find out things’, but I wish he had said to me, ‘Hold back on that, son.’”

Inevitably, once he joined the Monday Club, Bercow encountered, “surprise, surprise, people who were anti-Semitic” and he promptly left. Years later, in 2001, by which time his journey from extreme-right-winger to social liberal was almost complete, he supported the ban on Tory MPs becoming members of the Monday Club and a number of Monday Clubbers were forced to resign their Conservative party membership.

A year earlier, he had apologised, at party conference, for the Tories having been “at best indifferent and at worst hostile” to black or Asian people. Today, he laments that there are so few “black and Asian faces in senior positions in the House” and has commissioned research to find out why.

Bercow’s journey – from tribal Tory attack dog, when “I cheered aggressively for my team; I behaved badly on an industrial scale from the back benches in terms of heckling and name-calling”, to liberal on social rights issues such as race, gender and sexuality – has led many in his own party to mistrust him. They see him as disloyal. In 2002, he ignored a three-line whip imposed by Iain Duncan Smith to vote against gay adoption and was forced to resign from the front benches. A couple of years later, after being appointed shadow international development secretary by Michael Howard, he publicly praised Tony Blair for his leadership and was dumped from the Tory shadow cabinet. Others have accused him of political expediency –once he had alienated many from his own party, critics claim, he was forced to court Labour in order to win enough votes to become Speaker. One senior Tory, who asked not to be named, told me that Bercow at Prime Minister’s Questions became “a nauseating spectacle: if a Labour MP or minister said something that he liked he’d shout out in his faux-sincere way, ‘Well said! Make that man a minister.’ If it was a Tory he would shout, ‘Rubbish!’ or ‘Split infinitive!’”

Some have attributed the change in Bercow’s political views to the influence of his Labour activist wife. In fact, the two first met at a Conservative party conference and her journey to the left has been as turbulent as his.

Bercow insists that at heart he’s still a Tory and that the rumours he was ever going to switch sides were baseless. “I never wanted to be a member of any other political party. I still feel, fundamentally, [that] free enterprise, suitably constrained and subject to rules, works better than state ownership as a means of economic growth and as a vehicle for freedom, but I also think in a decent, civilised society, public services matter, human rights matter, civil liberties matter . . . Does the gap between rich and poor matter? I think it does, yes.”

Those who accuse him of being a political chameleon “don’t know me. They’re entitled to their views, but they suffer from the quite considerable disadvantage of being wrong.”

At times, when he is in mid-flow, Bercow reminds me of the verbose guest Mr Hutchinson in Fawlty Towers, who asks Basil Fawlty: “Now is it possible for me to reserve the BBC2 channel for the duration of this televisual feast?” to which an exasperated Fawlty replies, “Why don’t you talk properly?” As he continues, I struggle to spot a soundbite. “Is it entirely understandable that over the course of a career, over the course even of a small period of years – of a couple of years or five years – and of course of a parliament, that a member of parliament might change his mind about or her mind about a subject? I think it’s entirely understandable.”

Bernard Jenkin, a Tory backbencher who did not vote for Bercow for Speaker but who believes he has been “a good thing for parliament”, is in no doubt that his metamorphosis was genuine. He remembers seeing him pacing up and down as he was about to vote on equalising the age of consent. “He said, ‘What should I do? I think I’ve changed my mind on this.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s what this place is for. Get in there and make the speech of your life.’ And he did.”

Metamorphosis: John Bercow by Kate Peters for the New Statesman

Bercow admits that he is “not really a team player” and explains that the back benches suited him better. “For years I oscillated between wanting to serve as a shadow minister and wanting to be the free-spirited parliamentarian. Am I naturally given to accepting the writ of others on a vast range of matters, which is basically what you have to do as a shadow minister and even more as a minister? Answer: no.” (Is he partial to a rhetorical question? Answer: yes.)

Dorries describes Bercow as “a backbencher in the Speaker’s chair”. She remembers him as “a very competent backbencher and he’s taken that with him. He is very supportive of those of us who haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of getting anywhere.” It is easy to see how Bercow, ever the outsider, might be inclined to empathise more with the marginalised in parliament. Admirers point to how he has succeeded in giving backbenchers a voice, increasing their time for asking questions.

Bercow once said that he would like inscribed on his tombstone the epitaph “Here lies John Bercow, the backbenchers’ Speaker”, and his primary role, he says, is “to try to catapult the backbencher from the stools of parliamentary life to the centre stage so that the backbencher can question, probe, scrutinise, challenge, expose and from time to time contradict the executive”. That includes those he calls “the awkward squad”, as well as minorities.

In his reincarnation as Speaker, Bercow quickly became one of the most divisive and derided figures in parliament, disliked by many in his own party. One front-bencher told me: “He makes my skin crawl.” David Cameron, said to be a mild-mannered man, allegedly goes puce when Bercow’s name is mentioned. Jenkin concedes that Bercow “does seem to enjoy poking his finger in the eye of the government”. Nadine Dorries claims that Cameron has told her on numerous occasions that he regrets not supporting her campaign to unseat the Speaker. “He never stops complaining about John Bercow, either in the tearooms or the smoking room. I always say to him, ‘Shut up. You had your chance; you just wanted to get into No 10. You knew what was the right thing to do. You didn’t do it. You made your bed, now lie in it.’ He always says, ‘Yes, Nadine, I’m sorry. You were absolutely right.’”

Tory critics accuse Bercow of a bias in favour of Labour. The Conservative MP for Reading Rob Wilson tells me that, after “hearing a lot of talk in the tearoom that John Bercow was behaving in a strange way, in that he was dishing out some pretty heavy chastisement to Conservatives and not doing the same for the other side of the House”, he decided to do some factual research.

“Based on the evidence from June 2009 up to the recent summer recess,” Wilson says, “it was quite clear that Bercow was chastising Conservatives more than the Labour MPs.” He concluded that “something is not right”. His explanation for the apparent bias is: “Bercow had made so many enemies within the Conservative Party that he . . . was reliant almost entirely on the Labour MPs for his election as Speaker, so it is bound to have an impact on behaviour.”

The senior Tory I spoke to agrees: “Unofficially Ed Balls was his campaign manager [for Speaker], doing the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, and you can see, with regard to their relation in parliament, he gives Balls a hell of a lot more rope than he does Tories.”

“Fairness isn’t about statistical equality,” Bercow says, in response to these accusations of bias. “Fairness is about dealing with the situation as it arises.” He adds, rather more pointedly: “How many times one side has been told off rather than the other will reflect the incidence of that disorder, if you like, and will reflect the reality of the behaviour.”

Douglas Carswell, a Tory backbencher who tabled a motion of no confidence in 2009 to get rid of Bercow’s immediate predecessor, Michael Martin, says the idea that Bercow is partisan is “utter nonsense. Of course we happen to be in government and he is biased in favour of the back benches, so of course it will appear to some that he is opposed to the government side. The more that we hear traditionalists whining and muttering about Bercow, the more confident we should be that he is on our [the people’s] side and that he is doing the right thing.”

Bercow’s willingness to take the unpopular path has made him one of the most revolutionary speakers of modern times. As Jenkin says, “He’s the first anti-establishment Speaker that I’ve ever known, which means he keeps testing the old conventions and stretching them.”

No modern Speaker has created as much controversy, or been as divisive among MPs or less deferential to government. The Labour MP Natascha Engel, chair of the backbench business committee, agrees: “He’s a moderniser and I think for traditionalists that might be a bit of a problem.” As parliamentary umpire, he is intent on rewriting the rules of the game and, having survived one attempt to overthrow him as Speaker, is gathering an army of ardent supporters from both sides of the House. The Labour MP and former minister for the environment Michael Meacher, who now chairs the all-party parliamentary group for reform of parliamentary procedure and who has been in the House for 40 years, says emphatically: “He is the best Speaker in my lengthy experience because he is genuinely concerned about making parliament serve the democratic requirements of the British people, making the executive more accountable to parliament and to the legislature and to the MPs on the back benches.”

Even his critics largely concede that he has improved the conduct of proceedings on the floor of the House, encouraging pithy questions and answers and interrupting anyone who is longwinded or pointlessly obsequious. His intolerance of brown-nosers and pontificators has led to a brisker pace, leaving more time for questions.

He has also granted significantly more urgent questions, allowing emergency debates on the big political news of the day. Now, when ministers fail to offer oral statements on matters of importance, they find themselves called to the chamber to explain themselves. Caroline Lucas, Britain’s first and only Green MP, says: “He really has rejuvenated the chamber as a forum for parliamentary scrutiny and debate. Previously . . . the power had drained from parliament to press conferences or sofas at No 10.”

When the 2012 Budget was leaked, for instance, George Osborne was called to the chamber to answer questions for three hours. Carswell describes how things have changed with Bercow at the helm. “When I first arrived in parliament in 2005, I was stunned to discover how supine and spineless it was. It was completely dominated by the executive, by the good old boy whips, and one of the reasons why I think people have such contempt for politicians is . . . they have clocked that they are utterly useless at holding those in power to account. Bercow has begun to change this and he is restoring purpose to parliament. Instead of government controlling parliament you are beginning to see parliament controlling government.

Bercow remembers a time several years ago when, as European commissioner, Peter Mandelson “effectively told parliament to get lost” when he was summoned to give evidence to the international development select committee. “Originally I think he ignored the request and [then] he deliberately suggested a couple of dates on Friday afternoon when parliament is generally not sitting.” This kind of evasiveness and disrespect for the House would not be tolerated today, Bercow says.

Yet the senior Tory argues that the idea that the Speaker has been good for parliament is “unadulterated rubbish. Some of these UQs [urgent questions] he is granting are politically motivated. He loathes Michael Gove, for example, so whenever he can cause trouble for the Department for Education a UQ is almost certainly going to be granted. He may have increased the number of UQs he grants but some of them are being chosen because they cause particular problems for the government.”

Patrolling parliament

Bercow is also passionate about improving the public image of parliament, acting as an ambassador outside the chair, which I imagine compensates for not being able to opine when in it. Engel believes that another reason why he is such a divisive figure is that “people are used to having a speaker that doesn’t speak. I think people like the Speaker to be hidden away, and then come out in his robes when it’s time to sit in the chair.”

Bercow has clamped down on the orchestrated, ritual barracking and juvenile conduct at PMQs, which he believes sets a bad example to the country’s schoolchildren and alienates the public. He recounts an occasion when he had to tell the then children’s minister Tim Loughton to be quiet: “I said it wasn’t obligatory for the children’s minister to behave like a child – and he didn’t like it. Well, to be honest, tough.”

He reprimanded Simon Burns for being “boring and boorish”. He even castigated the Prime Minister for using the word “idiot” in the chamber, ruling it “unparliamentary” and asking Cameron to withdraw it, which he duly did. (Rob Wilson points out, however, that Bercow did “allow the secretary of state [for culture] to be branded a liar on the floor of the House of Commons”.) He had a memorable stand-up row with the government chief whip when he was forced to shout “Order!” at him eight times.

“When the decibel level is something of which Deep Purple wouldn’t have dreamt in their heyday in the Seventies, that is a bad thing. And the way I put it is that we shouldn’t spraypaint our own shop window. If we do all sorts of good work . . . but they’re not noticed and what people see by a massive multiple more than anything else from parliament is PMQs and these people screaming their heads off, like it’s a zoo, or very overexcited public school boys hyperventilating, then I think that’s bad for parliament.” But, he says, things will never change until the leaders of both main parties decide this is what they want. “When party leaders are elected they say they want to change it, but they seem to forget that commitment.”

The senior Tory points out that “there is a stench of hypocrisy about this. When he was a backbencher he was as raucous as anyone.”

On cue, just as I’m wondering if he sometimes gets confused and shouts “Order!” at Sunday lunch when the children get unruly, in stalks Order, the family’s tabby cat, shadowed by his children, Jemima, Oliver (whose primary school graduation he has just attended) and Freddie, who, he says, “looks rather like Daddy although he’s much better-looking”. The interview is suspended for a while as we chat about Frosties Bars and birds.

Bercow has served three of the nine years of his self-imposed maximum term as Speaker and has many more reforms he would like to set in motion. First, he would like to see a House business committee to help parliament and not the government set the agenda, “on which hopefully backbenchers sit, which ideally would be chaired not by the Leader of the House or a minister, but a backbencher or a deputy speaker. And ideally I would like to see a motion put before the House, votable on, as to what the business of the House should be for future weeks.”

On whether he thinks the government will honour its pledge to set up such a committee before May 2013, Bercow answers slowly, with ironic formality, in his Speaker of the House voice. He was, he says, “most grateful to the leader of the House, Sir George Young, for reaffirming the government’s commitment to set up a House business committee between now and May 2013”. He smiles. His press adviser smiles. The Speaker has made his point.

He would also like to see more select committees with more powers. “I would like to think that in future we might develop a system whereby select committees could scrutinise applicants for key public appointments, because ministers have got great power but ministers are the least accountable to parliament. The head of the Child Support Agency, the head of the Inland Revenue, the head of quite a number of other important organisations like the Environment Agency, isn’t accountable – all those people are not accountable directly to parliament other than by inquisition in relation to particular areas of policy.”

He is responsible for the new nursery in the House (“in a modern organisation, a large employer should have a nursery”) and would like to see “far more women in very senior positions in the service of the House”, as well as more black and Asian people and more “able people from ordinary backgrounds”.

Bercow is less forthcoming on the question of the House of Lords. He shoots his press adviser a look when I bring up Lord’s reform. In the days when he was allowed to be partial, he argued for a wholly elected second chamber. “I will be deplorably excessively candid with you,” he laughs. “Leigh [his press officer] said to me earlier, ‘It would probably be better on the whole not even to say what you used to say as a backbencher.’ But seeing as you raised it anyway . . .” He confirms that, when he as free to do so, he argued in favour of an elected second chamber but is “not going to take sides between those who want an elected second chamber and those who don’t”.

He is at pains to point out that his job is not to favour a political view or “rig the market”, but rather “to facilitate the fair contest”. It is his job to know which MPs have strong views on both sides of the debate and to make sure all the arguments are represented. It helps that he has an almost photographic memory. “Sally thinks that I sometimes forget things that I ought to remember and that I remember things that I ought to forget, but for political things I’ve got quite a good memory,” he says, smiling.

He knows each of the 650 members by name and is familiar with their views on a wide range of issues. He can also speak for hours without notes and prepares by learning his lines, like an actor. His mother and father were both involved in amateur dramatics and his mother, Brenda, now in her eighties, still works as a supporting actress at the Royal Court Theatre in London and elsewhere. There is no doubt that Bercow has inherited some of his showmanship from his parents, including the theatrical enunciation, the occasional panto faces and his skills at mimicry. He does a faultless Tony Benn impression.

As for his own future, he says he doesn’t know what he will do after he gives up the Speaker’s chair. “I enjoy communication so am I likely thereafter to become a Trappist monk and never to express an opinion about anything? No.” He would want to continue to “champion causes dear to me” and perhaps write something “if I were capable”. He has always been interested “in the whole field of education so I suppose it’s not impossible that I might try to do something in that field if the opportunity presents itself”. I imagine him in his black robe, provost at Eton, once again bestowing order on the public school rabble.

Bercow is a smorgasbord of paradoxes: insider but outsider, bullish and bullied, verbose scourge of pontificators, willing to take the unpopular path and yet keen to be liked, happy to chastise but sensitive to criticism, the moderniser who speaks like a character from a Trollope novel, pantomime-pompous yet a victim of snobbery, the performer on centre stage who is also touchingly earnest.

“In truth I just feel that I’m very lucky, Jemima,” he tells me as I’m about to leave. “I’ve got some abilities; I’ve also got big flaws. I think that things have worked for me in a way for which I am very grateful. I don’t expect to be able to please or satisfy everybody. I think it’s better not to dwell on the negatives –you should just try to get on and do the right thing.

“I’m not planning to die tomorrow but if I do I shall die happy and feel that I’ve had my chance and I enjoyed it.”

Jemima Khan is the associate editor of the NS.

Jemima Khan is a film and TV producer. Formerly a journalist, she joined the New Statesman as associate editor in November 2011.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?