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The John Bercow I knew

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-01-16 at 15.53.12 My heart isn't really in being unpleasant about John Bercow, although I confess that my tongue's been so from time to time.  Perhaps I'm too lily-livered - or kind-hearted, or bone idle to knuckle down to the task.  Or maybe there's too much competition.  Or perhaps I hold back because he did me a very good turn, not all that long ago.  But with Mark Pritchard and these T-shirts and those weekend articles - see here, here and here, for example, it's time to consider Mr Speaker.  I can't beat the quality of the jokes, but will try at least to match that of the observations.

I first saw Bercow in 1982.  When I say that I saw him, I mean that there was a small disturbance in the group of Conservative students who were grilling me at the time, and a voice began to harangue me in seventeenth-century English.  When I looked closer I saw in the midst of the throng what appeared to be Demosthenes recast as a spider monkey.  Whatever else one might think of this midget orator he clearly possessed almost inexhaustable eloquence and very right-wing views.  He continued to ascend the Federation of Conservative Students like a ladder before, like the man at end of the Tractatus, casting it aside.

This sums it up, at least for me.  Bercow was of the right and on the rise, not necessarily in that order.  He was also in the right place at the right time.  He dabbled in the City and did a bit of PR, but was essentially an embryo politician.  Being so, he lost no time in serving as a special adviser to two startlingly different Cabinet Ministers, Virginia Bottomley and Jonathan Aitken.  He soon parachuted into the safe seat of Buckingham, almost literally - arriving by helicopter, in order to dash between one selection and another, a reminder that he was very much in demand, among Party members at any rate.

My point's this.  A great deal of ink's been spilled over why Bercow moved from near the far right of the Party to the very end of its left: crack teams of psychiatrists have been commissioned to explore size, sex, Sally and anti-semitism, sometimes all at once.  To borrow a phrase from the Speaker himself, these are not matters for me.  Instead, I'll stick to politics and hazard a guess: Bercow will have wanted, when he entered the Commons, to lead the Party.  OK, so everyone does, with the exception of Douglas Carswell, Richard Shepherd and George Osborne, no, that last bit's just to check that you're still reading.

Furthermore, Bercow will have expected, at some level, to do so.  This isn't as far-fetched as it may now sound.  In 1997, the requirement that Conservative leaders had to be easy on the eye and accessible to the voters was less marked.  Bercow was a dazzling speaker - his style seemed less dated - wowed the activists, and got up Labour's nose.  He made the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Chief Secretary with due speed.  Then something went wrong.  I don't know what it was.  But, plainly, he didn't see eye to eye with Michael Howard (no heightist slight intended).  He was demoted to Work and Pensions within a year.

I wonder if it was at this point that it came home to Bercow that he wasn't going to lead the Party.  Whether so or not, it was during this period that his advocacy of modernising causes in antique language began to gather volume.  He resigned from Iain Duncan Smith's front bench over gay adoption.  Michael Howard brought him back, something of the night resuscitating one of the dead.  But Bercow didn't live twice: Howard sacked him in 2004, plunging - vampire-turned-exorcist - a stake through Bercow's heart.  That was the last the Tory front bench saw of him.

But not heard from him, as I saw.  Afternoon after afternoon, there was Bercow, shaking his head doubtfully while Conservative spokesman asked, nodding approvingly when Labour Ministers answered, rising time after time to blast, belittle or belabour his Party's official position - perched strategically all the while in a camera-friendly place a couple of rows or behind the Opposition Despatch Box.  It was hostile; worse still, from the Whips' point of view, it was uncollegiate - unprecedentedly so.  No Tory MP who's crossed the floor - Alan Howarth, Shaun Woodward, Robert Jackson, Quentin Davies - had ever behaved like this.

Bercow didn't do so, of course, though he's never denied considering it.  Nor was this required for him to be elected Speaker on a decisive tide of Labour votes.  This explains a sense of illegitimacy that his Speakership's never shaken off: the perception by many Conservative MPs that the neutrality of the Chair is short of what it should be.  Hence the clash with Simon Burns.  The incident with Patrick McLoughlin.  The contretemps with Mark Pritchard.  David Cameron's ominous jokes.  And the chilling line with which John Randall addressed him in the last Parliament: "I have many ambitions for you, Mr Speaker."

It would follow that he's bad in the role.  But in some senses, he's rather good.  He grants a lot of urgent questions, which a Speaker should do.  He's speeded up proceedings.  I don't agree with all his ideas, but his central one - that the powers of the legislature have diminished and should increase - is right on the nose.  If he was as smart as he's astute, he'd have moved quickly to repair his relations with the Tories and make it clear, like Prince Hal at the end of the last part of Henry IV, that one should "presume not that I am the thing I was".  And, sure, many more Conservative MPs have time for him that you might think.

I don't know Bercow now - or rather, to list those concerned in order of precedence, he doesn't know me.  I can't say that I ever knew him well, even when our ships - his moving left, mine right - passed in the night during the late 1990s.  It was always hard to delve through the dense spider-web of language to the person beneath.  As I say, I owe him one, and perhaps for that reason repeat: he's rather a good Speaker, in some senses.  But I'm writing about him today because he's been in the news, and he's been in the news partly because of his temper.

I wonder if the origin of that temper is frustration, and whether the source of that frustration is anger, welling up in turn from rejection - from being spurned by those who wouldn't applaud him, promote him, consider him as a future leader: "Heav'n has no Rage, like love to Hatred turn'd."  Bercow should last this Parliament out - and others too, if his seat doesn't somehow fall casualty to the coming constituency cull, or his career to his wife's Labour ambitions.  But if the Commons comes to hold him in contempt, guying his mannerisms as he mocked those of his former colleagues, I wouldn't put money on it.


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