John Bercow: The independent iconoclast
John Bercow has made his name as a reforming, thoroughly 21st century Speaker of the House of Commons. Since his election against the odds three years ago, he’s swept aside convention, challenged the Establishment and ushered in an era of change to Parliament.
But as he sits in his large and impressive office overlooking the Thames, the 157th Speaker now has a fresh shock with which to discombobulate his critics. He’s coming out as a traditionalist. Admittedly, the issue on which he deviates from his usual modernising instincts is a narrow one, but it is important: prayers for MPs.
In the wake of the row over courts ruling against prayers for council meetings, Mr Bercow is keen to point out that, on this subject at least, he is not about to tear up the centuries-old practice of Parliament. The daily prayers at the start of the day are here to stay.
“If you ask me, do I think that the way in which we conduct prayers is reasonable and generally popular, the answer is I do. If you ask if I find it an enjoyable start to the parliamentary day, I do. If you ask me do I think that having a Speaker’s chaplain – and in particular this Speaker’s chaplain – is a positive for the House, I absolutely do.
“Personally I would prefer to keep it as it is. Yes I’m a reformer, but just because you are a reformer, it doesn’t mean you have to change everything. I believe in changing to make the House stronger. I don’t myself believe that getting rid of prayers would make the House stronger.”
Ever the stickler for precision, Mr Bercow says that secularists “theoretically” have a point about prayers being a discriminatory practice, in that the granting of a prayer card means MPs can book a seat ahead of their colleagues. But he points out that in practice there are very few occasions when a non-praying Member can’t get a seat.
The Speaker adds that “If enough Members wanted to look at it, I’m certainly not going to object or try to impose my view.”
He points out that this is part of his general approach to the House. “I know people don’t think of me as a very modest chap. There’s no point in me taking the Hercule Poirot approach [an impressive mimic, he here adopts a rasping Belgian accent]: ‘I will exceed all other people in my humbleness’. I’m not going to persuade any of you that I’m a humble person. But I’m not actually a particularly dogmatic person and I am conscious that I am here to serve the House, not to rule over it.”
The willingness to discuss his character traits so openly, traits which not long ago his critics would have seized on as flaws, comes from a confidence which the Speaker is clearly enjoying as he approaches his fourth year in the job.
And, 17th century prayers aside, Mr Bercow makes plain that his zeal for modernisation is unabated. He can claim, with some justification, that the House has seen “more reform in the last three years than there had been in the previous 30”. He has a useful statistic to prove it: under his speakership 88 urgent questions have been granted, compared to just two in the last 12 months of Michael Martin’s reign.
“The Urgent Question really has become the new prime minister’s question, because it’s a precious opportunity frankly, pretty much a unique chance, to seize national attention,” he declares. “An unpredictable House is a more effective House. It’s a good thing if perhaps the government cannot always tell what is going to happen next.”
On the consistently contentious issue of sitting hours, Mr Bercow is happy to describe himself as “fundamentally sympathetic to what I call more family-friendly hours... I’ve made no secret of that fact that I think that it would be more desirable if the House met earlier on a Tuesday and finished earlier.” A shift to earlier Wednesday sittings would interest him too: “I would be entirely sanguine about that.”
On the fortnightly September sitting, a source of grumbling amongst MPs complaining about the cost, his view is set. “I remain a firm fan. I think if the argument is that the business isn’t sufficiently substantive… my argument is well, make it more substantive. Surely none of us is seriously saying to the electorate we have nothing useful, worthwhile, important, or urgent to consider?”
He is also keen on even further reform here, arguing that there’s no reason why the House should not sit for the whole of September. He says that the public wonder why MPs ‘trog off for week-long [party] conferences’. “What is so utterly sacrosanct about these lengthy conferences? They could perfectly well take place Friday to Sunday in a very disciplined and business-like fashion. Would that be a change? Yes.”
The creation of a House business committee to wrest Commons scheduling away from the usual government channels may be one solution. Mr Bercow animatedly describes this as “the single biggest item of unfinished business” before urging the government to act on its intention to create a business committee in the third year of the Parliament.
“My view about it is that if the House means business, that must mean a House business committee,” he says, before settling on a sporting analogy: “Any self-respecting football club would expect to control its own fixture list, and given that the House is the cockpit of our democracy, it ought surely to have a major say in what it debates, when, and for how long.”
Intriguingly, he then names his preferred chairman. “It would be a good thing if, for example, it were chaired by the senior deputy Speaker, the chairman of the Ways and Means, in this case Lindsay Hoyle.”
Mr Bercow is already doing his bit to put the Commons back in control, and laughs when asked whether the three hours for which he forced George Osborne to answer questions during the Autumn Statement was a form of parliamentary punishment or ‘detention’.
“I was very displeased by the leaking and organised systematic public commentary on the Autumn Statement. I thought, apart from anything else, it was worth running the Autumn Statement exchanges very fully so that I could establish whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer had anything to say inside the Chamber that he hadn’t already said outside it.”
Osborne looked pained by the experience, and with PMQs frequently over-running by up to five minutes, David Cameron often looks far from pleased too.
“As far as prime ministers’ questions is concerned, I haven’t a deliberate policy of running PMQs longer than half an hour,” Bercow insists, before adding: “If, by just being a little bit flexible, I can allow somebody at the end to get in then I think that, from time to time, I might want to do so.” He says he adds time to compensate for when the PM reads out statements or tributes, and also to account for the time taken up by the sheer noise of the event.
However, the Speaker’s well-intentioned constitutional tinkering has accrued far less coverage than the embarrassing tale of the Portcullis House fig trees, which have reportedly cost nearly £400,000 to maintain since 2000.
“I was horrified by it. I had no idea of the cost that the House had been incurring,” he declares. “There will be members of the public out there... who are not taking notice of all the good work of the backbench business committee or the plans for the House business committee, or of the incidents of Urgent Questions, but who will have noticed the story of the House of Commons trees, and inevitably and understandably it will cause people out there to think these people are living in another universe.”
So what can be done about the offending trees? “The honest answer is I think the contract should absolutely be revisited,” he replies. “If we are going to have trees, they absolutely shouldn’t be trees that cause us to fleece the taxpayer in this way, and that must change at the earliest opportunity. If there is a contract and it’s going to cost us more to get out of it immediately than not, then it may well have to wait... but should the present arrangement continue beyond September? Absolutely not.”
On the security challenges for a modern Commons, the Speaker suggests some of the lessons that need to be learnt from the Rupert Murdoch foam pie incident.
“One thing that can be considered, and it should be considered on a case-by-case basis, is the configuration of the room. There is some argument for saying that people should be a bit further back, a buffer zone, a bit like in Westminster Hall. One could argue that the gap where the public are sitting and where prominent witnesses are sitting should be larger.” Another reform would be – though he accepts not all MPs would agree – to have the public seated behind the chairman and committee rather than behind a prominent witness.
As for his own future, the Speaker insists he will stand again for the post after the 2015 election. “I always said that I would do nine years and I wouldn’t expect to do more than nine years. Now if we get to the end of this Parliament, I will have done six and I would hope and expect to do the bulk of the next Parliament.”
Crucially, Mr Bercow thinks that his fair treatment of colleagues has helped win round his critics. He points out that Mark Pritchard, who once pointed out in the vernacular that the Speaker was not ‘royalty’, is now “very supportive, and I know of a number of other people in that category”. “If there are other people who are still hostile or critical, for whatever reason they never wanted me to be Speaker, not the right sort of chap, whatever, they are perfectly entitled to their views.”
One person who is also perfectly entitled to their views is, of course, Mrs Bercow. She famously said that her decision to enter the other House – the Celebrity Big Brother House – last year prompted ‘the biggest ding dong’ of their marriage. Is that true?
“We had a candid exchange of views on the merits of her participating in that programme. But in the end it was her choice and I do respect the fact that it was her right to choose.
“I’m not going to be a hypocrite about it and say that I was in favour of her taking part. I felt that the programme was not a high-quality programme and I did feel, Richard Desmond will not be surprised to hear me say this, that if he wanted to give money to her, and indeed my favourite charity, Ambitious About Autism, it was perfectly open for him to do so without her going on the programme. And I thought that it was not necessary or desirable for her to go on it.
“If you’re asking, ‘Is it still the source of argument or consternation between us?’ I can honestly say to you it isn’t.”
Mrs Bercow last week took their three children to live with TV reality star and traveller Paddy Doherty on his caravan. The Speaker says that programme is “qualitatively in a different category” from Big Brother. “I’m very relaxed about it. I met him at a charity dinner in London. She likes Paddy, she thinks Paddy’s a nice guy and she gets on well with him and his wife.”
Finally, was Mrs B correct to state that since he became Speaker ‘the number of women who hit on him has gone up dramatically’? He laughs. “I have not noticed any such thing, not as far as I am aware. I have not looked for it and wouldn’t want it and I love my wife very much. And I have never looked at another woman since I’ve been married to Sally.”
He may not give a fig – let alone a fig tree – for many conventions. But when it comes to things like marital fidelity (as well as Commons prayers), Speaker Bercow is Mr Traditional. Even his critics may say Amen to that.
THE SPEAKER ON HIS MEDIA CRITICS
“They’re scribbling away their verbal banalities with breathtaking insignificance. Intellectually there’s no weight, politically they are not particularly savvy. I’m sorry if it makes them unhappy that I’m happy, but I’m very happy. I have no plans to die but if I die tomorrow, I will die a very happy man.”
THE SPEAKER ON A COMMERCIAL COMMONS
“I do think we should try and improve our revenue-raising, but I’m a little anxious about some of what I read. I am a little anxious about the idea that large corporates should buy their way into the House. I am uncomfortable with that.”
THE SPEAKER ON HS2
“It was a most unwelcome announcement as far as I was concerned and as far as all the Buckinghamshire MPs and a great many others were concerned.”
THE SPEAKER ON BACKBENCH BUSINESS
“I do not believe for one moment that the backbench business committee should be merged into and, dare I say it, absorbed by a House business committee. The idea occurs to me that that might have the effect… of suffocating, extinguishing the life or spirit, of the backbench business committee, but I am sure that no honourable or right honourable member would entertain such an unworthy objective.”
THE SPEAKER ON GETTING A PEERAGE
“I have no idea what’s going to happen in the future. I’m simply not going to get into that.”