John Bercow has always been the marmite man – MPs either love him or hate him, with very few sitting on the fence. It’s been unusual, then, to see him as such a uniting force over the past few days. Unfortunately for the Speaker, the common cause has been the opposition to his proposed appointment of Carol Mills as the House of Commons clerk.
It would be easy to think that the latest furore is part of the usual rough and tumble that comes when you have a Speaker who is disliked personally by a sizeable number of MPs from the governing party. But, in truth, the Mills row has taken Bercow into new and dangerous territory.
Since his election five years ago, Bercow has swiped aside any challenges to his position, notwithstanding the fervent desire of many Tory MPs to unseat him. His saving grace so far has been that, amid all the personal sniping, he had been thought to be doing a pretty decent job, particularly in standing up for backbenchers’ rights. Many MPs also recognised that Bercow seemed to have a genuine love for Parliament, even if it did come second to the sound of his own voice.
That is why his proposed appointment of Mills, who is widely thought to lack the necessary experience to do the job of clerk properly, is so incendiary. This time, the resistance is not coming from the usual suspects. Instead, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who even went as far as proposing Bercow for re-election as Speaker after the 2010 poll, is one of those speaking out. Margaret Beckett – who initially ran against Bercow as Speaker, but whose supporters flocked to Bercow en masse once she withdrew – is another who has turned against his proposal.
Anyone who thinks that this public resistance is likely to make him change his mind is in for a rude awakening, not least because to back down now would be a humiliating reversal. Bercow’s instinct is always to dig in his heels when he faces opposition. Like a cornered animal, he snarls and lashes out – there’s certainly no chance of him rolling over for someone to tickle his tummy. But this is a real political weakness, because in seeking to punish anyone who disagrees with him, rather than trying to broker a middle way, he only makes the situation worse for himself. From such small acorns of dislike, great enmities grow. No wonder that, having originally fallen out back in 2005, David Cameron still, as one aide told me, “spits blood” at the mention of Bercow’s name.
The Mills episode threatens to highlight the Speaker’s combative side to a whole new audience of MPs, and could well erode significant support amongst members who had been won over. Meanwhile, it will act as a lightning rod for the “anyone but Bercow” camp, who have been waiting for a moment to pounce, and could well make some of their more ambivalent colleagues think that there is a point to what they’re saying. After all, the appointment of Mills comes across as a power grab, which threatens to undermine the institution Bercow is meant to love.
Until now, I’ve always thought that talk of unseating Bercow has been over-hyped, but the Speaker is becoming dangerously outflanked. If MPs think he can’t be trusted to protect the Commons, and with a group of plotters waiting in the wings, he could be vulnerable when the House votes to re-elect him after the 2015 election. He will be particularly worried if the Conservatives win a majority. If they do, David Cameron might be tempted to capitalise on these concerns by taking the marmite man and making him toast.
Bobby Friedman is the author of “Bercow, Mr Speaker: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party”