April 03, 2015
The Speaker of the House of Commons is the most powerful commoner in the United Kingdom. On the 26th of March, an attempt to change the rules for electing the Speaker of the House of Commons was defeated by 228 votes to 202. The present Speaker, Conservative MP John Bercow, was thereby excused from submitting himself for re-election when Parliament returns after the election.
This may seem obscure, but it matters because of the peculiar nature of the person presently occupying that post. John Bercow’s seriocomic career is also the story of the Tory Right, in all its confused ineffectiveness.
Bercow became the 157th Speaker of the Commons in 2009. The Speaker chairs all debates and has discretion over which MPs to call to speak, and which to ignore or abridge. Yet the man (or, once, woman) occupying the green leather dais at the literal and figurative centre of British democracy is elected by an open ballot of MPs – and always knows who voted against him. This potential for abuse was the ostensible motive of William Hague, outgoing Leader of the House (and one time Great Right Hope), when he tabled a surprise motion on his last day in Parliament calling for Speakers to be elected by secret ballot. But history lay behind it.
That Bercow is nicknamed “The Squeaker” hints at his diminutive size – also the contempt with which he is regarded on the Righthand side of the chamber. All Speakers make controversial decisions, but it is rare to be so cordially detested by former colleagues.
Bercow, son of a London cabbie, was a by-product of Thatcherism, and could probably not have risen so high within the Conservative Party in any earlier period. He was bullied at school, where he developed a phobia about wasps and bees and, perhaps, a grudge against authority figures – except useful ones. Yet like many bright and inadequate boys of his background, maybe he really loved The Leaderene, with her exciting hairsprayed helmet and schizophrenic package of patriotism plus globalization. Overcompensating for his origins, he threw himself into the Monday Club, a large but Smith Square-embarrassing ginger group, becoming secretary of its most embarrassing sub-set, the Immigration and Repatriation Committee. Later he would characterize this as “utter madness.”
Before that happily-timed change of heart, he would become last Chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students, get elected as MP, and insert himself into two Shadow Cabinets. For a politician, he had an uncanny ability to annoy people, and he was suspected of disloyalty, especially after congratulating Tony Blair for “outstanding statesmanship” on Iraq. He joined the “modernizers” who were denouncing their party as -ists and -phobes, and opposed Cameron’s leadership because “the combination of Eton, hunting, shooting and lunch at Whites is not helpful.” Cameron has detested Bercow ever since – he reportedly refers to him as a little shit.
In 2002, Bercow married Labour supporter Sally, who looms over him physically and politically, hindering his hunt for social validation with alcohol-fuelled osculation and idiotic Tweets. Conservatives groaned or seethed – Labour mocked and used him – while he grinned and gurned, and played a deep game. When the Speakership came up, he portrayed himself as an anti-establishmentarian, who would revivify the ancient role through accountability, diversity, outreach, etc. Few believed him, but from Labour’s perspective he had the essential qualification – his appointment would be hated by Tories. His climbing up into the Chair was accompanied by laughter from Labour MPs at what one whip called this “stuffing” of the Opposition. (These irony-free MPs would describe Hague’s motion as “grubby”.)
And so began the reformer’s reign – doffing of ceremonial garb, photo-journalists invited in to see his children’s toys, outreach interviews, the dubious expansion and salarization of the Chairman’s Panel, an attempt to appoint a wholly inexperienced Clerk, and some of history’s worst gigs. Like many small men he insists on throwing his bantamweight around, humiliating old enemies whenever possible. Stilettos were kept keen until Hague sprang the secret ballot motion at a time when many Labour MPs would be absent.