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Sally Bercow's not the only one in the family who could be evicted

By Paul Goodman
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I have a rule for life and a rule for this column.  The first is never to watch Big Brother in either version.  The second is never to write about Sally Bercow.  I kept the first yesterday evening - the debut of the new Celebrity Big Brother series - but am breaking the second this morning.  She seems to have been trying for some time to get her husband pitched out of the Speaker's chair.  I am beginning to think that this time round she may succeed.

She apparently wants "to stick two fingers up to the establishment".  It will be said that a husband shouldn't be judged by what his wife does, and vice-versa - that they may be as intimately linked as the lion and the unicorn, but that both have their own individuality, especially in these progressive times.  But life is not so simple - especially when one of the couple is the establishment - the first man of the legislature, the public face of an institution as fabled as those rampant beasts, and the guardian of its seemliness.

Seemliness: that's the word to grasp.  We are judged not so much by what we are as by what we seem to be.  "Yes," says Alan Bennett's King George III, "I've always been myself, even when I was ill.  Only now I seem myself.  And that's the important thing.  I have remembered how to seem." This truth would apply even were the people of the village that the Speaker works in as twinkly with goodwill as those in Balamorey.

But the inhabitants of the Westminster village don't always aspire to such a standard, let alone reach it.  Were the Speaker as popular as Geoff Hurst and his wife as retiring as Miss Haversham, her mock-innocent entry into a village scarcely more artificial than either of the other two was bound to unleash a frenzy of eyebrow-raising and tongue-clucking.  Let's face it: Big Brother in any form isn't seemly.  Even were there more than 11 beds...meaning at least two celebs are going to have to pair up for the first week!"

Bercow, however, is not Hurst.  (After all, the latter didn't play against his own team.)  Some Conservative MPs see the Miss Haversham parallel as closer to the mark, but it is surely wide of it.  The truth looks more simple.  Mrs Speaker, former Labour council candidate, can only be manoevering to be a Labour MP - the second one in the family, lots of Conservative MPs would add.

And in order to reach her goal she has taken a crash course at the Robert Maxwell school of self-effacement.  I know that he was a Labour MP himself, but this may be overdoing it.  Don't take my word for it.  I call no less a witness than...the Speaker himself.  I can't, actually, since he has prudently taken himself off to the sub-continent for the course of the programme, in uncharacteristic imitation of the Indian rope trick.  But were he to speak with the candour his office doesn't allow, I'm sure he would back me up.

Bercow may be overbearing.  He may have a short fuse.  He may hate the Conservative Party.  Actually, forget the "may" in the last case and in the first two as well, come to think of it.  But he is no fool.  He is acutely sensitive to what others think of him.  And as alert to any threat to his position as any Mesopotamian overlord.  He knows that a big slice of the Tory Parliamentary Party - and other MPs too - want him out.

Forgiveness doesn't top of the list of David Cameron's virtues.  Even if it did, being judged unsuitable for the party leadership by Bercow because of "Eton, hunting, shooting and lunch at Whites" would probably leave it unexercised.  A dossier claiming Bercow bias recently ended up in the pages of the Daily Mail.  A document of that kind is unlikely to have been compiled without the Whips' Office taking an interest in its contents.  The piece contained a quote from Rob Wilson MP, who - come to think of it - was a whip, wasn't he?

And at this shimmeringly delicate juncture the person whose conduct has almost as great a bearing on Bercow's future as his own is gatecrashing the nation's living rooms.  The Speaker is as much a stranger to tranquility as she is to discretion and this event won't serve as an introduction in either case.  Bercow can't be happy, for all his splenetic defence of his wife's antics in interviews.

One understands his testiness. His wife is reported this morning to have told "a friend" that “I just used my feminine wiles and took John away for a dirty weekend in Devon. I gave him a weekend he wouldn’t forget which left him happy if breathless." This stomach-boggling mix of uxorial potency and Speakerly exhaustion looks to me like the programme's idea of a PR job.  Rob Wilson - again! - has said that he is "not sure how "Sally Bercow going on one of the country's tackiest shows helps restore Parliament's dignity".

The vultures are circling and the eagles are landing or maybe the other way round.  I am not among their number, though I must come clean: writing about my old student Conservative student mucker - who is not, as I keep insisting, a bad Speaker - is huge fun.  But my usual feelings about him and his Speakership are less literary delight than a great and growing weariness.

The truth is that Westminster is tiring of the Bercow saga - the war-of-the-roses-long resentments about the legitimacy or otherwise of his election, the squawking eruptions of Chair Rage, the wounded love turned to hate that has shaped his relations with the Tory Party.  And so, I suspect, is he.  This long war must be a daily hell for him.  Was it all worth it, that rat-slither to the Speaker's chair? Today, the Aunt Sally set up to be knocked down looks like him as well as his wife.  She may not end up as the only one of the family to be evicted.


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