LONDON — He is one of the most recognizable figures in British politics — and that’s just the way the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, likes it.
The grandson of Romanian Jewish immigrants, “Mr. Speaker” chairs the United Kingdom’s lower house with wit, style and biting sarcasm. At the rumbustious weekly Prime Minister’s Questions — when members of the public pay momentary attention to what’s going on in parliament — Bercow is often the star of the show, reprimanding rowdy MPs without fear or favor.
After nearly a decade on the job, the speaker has also regularly tangled with Britain’s leaders, most notably former prime minister David Cameron and — much to the horror of traditionalists — attempted to drag parliament into the 21st century with an updated dress code.
But last week, Bercow was in the limelight for reasons he would rather less have appreciated, with the publication of a damning report into allegations of bullying and sexual harassment by MPs and senior staff. News of the allegations first broke last autumn in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
The fallout from the report has become enmeshed with the mounting crisis over Brexit and Bercow’s barely disguised opposition to Britain’s planned departure from the European Union next March. Indeed, not for nothing did the speaker secure a place on Politico magazine’s top 40 list of “Brexit troublemakers.”
While the independent report did not name names, the speaker, who has ultimate responsibility for the running of parliament, came under indirect attack. Bullying and harassment, retired judge Dame Laura Cox suggested, had been allowed to occur by “a culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence.”
In a thinly veiled call for Bercow to quit, she concluded: “I find it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current House administration.”
The following day, Bercow suffered the humiliation of having to preside over a debate into the report as MPs told him to his face that he should resign — a highly unusual state of affairs. His embarrassment and difficulties were compounded by the fact that the speaker himself was subject to allegations of bullying by former members of his staff earlier this year — charges that he vehemently denies.
What was most revealing about the debate, however, was the direction from which Bercow came under fire. While the speaker is supposed to be a neutral, non-partisan figure, Bercow has become a uniquely divisive figure, loathed by many on the right wing of the Conservative party, the very place from where he began his political ascent 30 years ago.
This sense of betrayal — combined with Bercow’s fiercely independent streak, his habitual willingness to snub authority and his plain-speaking, some would suggest, abrasive style — is set to produce a combustible mix in the coming months. As with all else in the fevered world of contemporary British politics, the backdrop is provided by Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May’s ebbing authority, and the sense that her government is staggering towards collapse.
An outspoken outsider
Bercow’s political persona was shaped by his upbringing in the heavily Jewish northwest London suburb of Finchley.
His paternal grandfather, Jack Bercowitch, arrived from Romania at the age of 16 in the year 1900. The family’s story typifies the upwardly mobile journey undertaken by many British Jews in the 20th century. Bercowitch worked as a gas fitter before becoming a furrier and later opening a shop. His sons set up a successful car dealership in central London. But when the future speaker was young, his father’s business began to struggle, leading him to eventually become a minicab driver after going through a divorce with Bercow’s mother.
Although secular, Bercow has often spoken with pride about his Jewish upbringing — he had his bar mitzvah at Finchley’s Reform synagogue — and he is a strong supporter of Israel. Last year, he became the first House of Commons speaker to pay an official visit to the Jewish state. A few months later, he welcomed delegates from the World Jewish Congress to parliament and spoke out publicly against the “pernicious and insidious” threat to Jews.
“There are still people denying the Holocaust or alternatively glorying in it and holding up Adolf Hitler as being a great figure in our history,” he warned.
That the Jewish son of a small businessman living in Margaret Thatcher’s constituency would gravitate towards the Conservative party is hardly surprising. But Bercow’s sense of himself as an outsider, as well as what his biographer, Bobby Friedman, has termed “his habit of speaking his mind,” stretches back to the vicious bullying the young schoolboy was subjected to.
“As a small and bullied child, he’d retained his self-confidence only by saying whatever he pleased — and to hell with the consequences,” writes Friedman.
Coming of age as Thatcher moved into Downing Street, Bercow was an avid supporter and joined the hard right, anti-immigration Monday Club. At university, he rose swiftly through the ranks of the Federation of Conservative Students, an organization which the Tories eventually shut down when the behavior of some of its activists — with their “Hang Mandela” posters and accusations that the prime minister herself was a “soft touch” — became a source of acute embarrassment.
After a stint as an aide to a Tory cabinet minister, Bercow was selected for the reliably safe Conservative seat of Buckingham in 1997; not even Labour leader Tony Blair’s landslide victory could prevent the ambitious young politician from finally making it to the House of Commons.
But Bercow then began a political journey which surprised — and angered — many. He took up the cause of gay rights (then deeply unfashionable in Conservative circles), defying the Tory whip to back Labour’s liberalizing measures and becoming an early supporter of same-sex marriage and gay adoption. He also became a vocal proponent of other socially liberal measures, such as reforming the drugs laws.
An early advocate of the modernizing agenda which Cameron later successfully adopted to bring to an end the Tories’ run of defeats at Blair’s hands, Bercow warned in a leaked letter: “We are seen as racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-youth. In short, if we are to have a chance of winning, we have to change our ways.”
He denounced the views of his erstwhile colleagues in the Monday Club as “unpalatable” and, joining the Shadow Cabinet, he argued that Tory MPs should be banned from membership in it.
Some attributed Bercow’s leftward drift to his marriage to Sally Illman, a Labour activist who herself had migrated from the political right.
“The trouble with John is that he discovered sex and the Labour party at the same time,” quipped one former friend to a journalist around the time of Bercow’s election as speaker.
Bercow himself had a simpler explanation: “Even youngish men can acquire wisdom as time goes by,” he declared on the day he was elected speaker in 2009.
Bercow also began to make powerful political enemies. As the Conservative journalist Andrew Gimson has argued, “John Bercow’s gift for giving unnecessary offense has throughout his life placed him in dangers a more prudent person would have avoided.”
His praise for Blair’s “outstanding statesmanship” on foreign policy issues on the eve of the Iraq war irked then-Tory leader Michael Howard, who subsequently dropped him from the Shadow Cabinet. Bercow retaliated by calling Howard’s hardline stance on immigration in the 2005 election “repellent.”
Bercow might have found a comfortable berth when the more liberal Cameron was elected Tory leader in the aftermath of the Conservatives’ third consecutive defeat. However, during the Tory leadership contest, he had launched a scathing attack on Cameron’s upper-class upbringing, always a sore point with the former prime minister.
Cameron never forgave Bercow for his suggestion that “in the modern world the combination of Eton, hunting, shooting and lunch at White’s is not helpful when you are trying to appeal to millions of ordinary people.” There followed persistent rumors that Bercow would defect to Labour — chatter which his decision to lead a policy review for Blair’s successor in Downing Street, Gordon Brown, did little to dim.
Unsurprisingly, when Bercow ran for the speakership in 2009 he was elected with strong backing from Labour MPs, with only 20 Tories believed to have voted for him.
Breaking with tradition
Bercow’s laudable determination to assert the rights of parliament against the government, as well as to shake up the way the House of Commons works, has simply added to his list of enemies.
Decrying the fact that the House of Commons was run as “little more than a private club, by and for gentleman amateurs,” the new, outsider speaker began abandoning once-hallowed traditions: Male MPs were allowed to speak in the chamber without wearing a tie, clerks were told to ditch their itchy wigs, and Bercow himself wore a business suit, rather than the knee breeches and tights his predecessors had worn when overseeing the Commons. Traditionalists, largely on the Tory benches, were predictably outraged.
Bercow also began to force ministers to come to the chamber far more often to account for the myriad cock-ups, blunders and scandals over which their departments daily preside. Used to corralling backbench MPs into the voting lobbies to back its legislation, the government began to feel the balance of power being not altogether gently tilted away from it.
The speaker’s new way of doing things was most evident in the manner in which Bercow treated ministers before the TV cameras. Casting deference aside, Bercow often interrupted a visibly irritated Cameron when he felt the prime minister was speaking for too long.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson was very publicly told off for sexist behavior towards a Labour frontbencher. Earlier this year, in a furious row over parliamentary procedure with ministers, Bercow is even alleged to have called the leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, “a stupid woman” and “fucking useless.”
A number of government MPs have fought a war of attrition against the speaker — one was forced to apologize after calling him a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf” — but a bungled attempt by ministers to force him out shortly before the 2015 election failed, as Labour MPs came to his rescue.
Bercow’s stock among liberals — and contempt for him on the right — rose further when he launched an unprecedented attack on Donald Trump shortly after the US president took office last January. With many Labour MPs furious that May had offered Trump a prestigious state visit to the UK, an effort was made in parliament to deny the president the honor of addressing a joint session of both Houses. Weighing in on their side, the speaker publicly announced that he would use his power to block Trump, pointedly arguing that “opposition to racism and sexism” were “hugely important considerations” in his thinking.
Stay or go
The bubbling tensions over the speaker now threaten to boil over thanks to Brexit. Once again abandoning political neutrality, Bercow told a group of students that he had voted for Britain to remain in the EU at the 2016 referendum. The anger of hardline Brexiteers — who, as Bercow once did, overwhelmingly hail from the Tory right — was further stoked when it was revealed that the speaker had attached a sticker to his car window with the words “Bollocks to Brexit — it’s not a done deal.”
But do Bercow’s personal views matter? With the government lacking a majority in the House of Commons, the Tory party deeply split over May’s negotiating strategy, and Bercow’s record of strongly defending the rights of parliament, the speaker may become a pivotal figure.
Both sides in the polarized debate certainly appear to believe so. One former Labour Cabinet minister last week bluntly admitted that, while allegations of bullying in parliament needed to be tackled, the speaker needed to remain in place because “the constitutional future of this country … trumps bad behavior.” The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, likewise agreed that “this is absolutely not the time to be changing speaker.”
On the other side of the aisle, the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph newspaper angrily denounced “Labour MPs who have cynically calculated that he will be vital to the fate of Brexit should the Commons reject Theresa May’s deal with the EU,” while one right-wing Conservative MP argued: “He has already ripped out every page on impartiality of the speaker’s rule book and he is playing to Labour Europhile MPs. These are probably the most important votes for a generation and the speaker is not impartial on this topic.”
Commentators and journalists agree. If May secures an agreement with the EU on Britain’s withdrawal terms, it will be the speaker who selects any proposed amendments to be debated and voted on. Some MPs, for instance, will attempt to propose amendments making a deal subject to a second referendum, a cause Bercow is likely to be sympathetic to and which, polls suggest, could see Britons voting to remain in the EU after all.
The speaker may also become the focus of the attention if May cannot get a deal or MPs vote it down. At that point Bercow may allow a series of backbench motions to be voted which would indicate what parliament wanted the prime minister to do next. Although not legally binding, these motions, James Forsyth, the political editor of the Spectator magazine, has argued, “would have huge moral force” and would also “tell the EU what kind of deal parliament would accept.”
Finally, Bercow may even have to break a tie in what are expected to be knife-edge votes. There are precedents about how he should act in such a situation, but Brexit is such a constitutionally unique issue that the speaker may end up with considerable leeway in deciding how to cast what could be critical votes.
Bercow had promised that he would serve only nine years as speaker, which would have seen him step down earlier this year. The fact that he has now indicated that he will go at some point next summer — when the parliamentary turmoil over Britain’s departure from the EU should have passed — delights Remainers and infuriates Brexiteers. By the time he leaves the speaker’s chair for the last time, expect Bercow to have added a few more enemies to that ever-growing list.
Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”