John Bercow and the Clerks
From his championing of Urgent Questions to the creation of a creche, John Bercow was undoubtedly a reforming Speaker. But his working relationship with some parliamentary authorities – who he viewed as obstructive – was often stretched to breaking point. In an abridged extract from ‘Call to Order’, his new biography of the former Speaker, Sebastian Whale looks at the fraught relationships during the Bercow era
Libby Bradshaw was on night duty in the Members’ Library when Tory MP John Bercow phoned in an inquiry. During her years working in the House of Commons Service, she had worked out the different types of politicians: some were collegiate and patient, others were not. Bercow fell into the latter category.
Bercow sent along his researcher to collect the information, which Bradshaw had placed in a tray. However, he came down half an hour later after his staff member had returned empty-handed. “Are you Elizabeth?” he asked, unamused.
Bradshaw recalls: “He went on and on and on, proper loud shouting. I just literally picked it up and gave it to him, because it was there. He just stormed out: no apology, nothing.”
During his ventilation, Bercow allegedly referred to Bradshaw as a "little girl”. “At the time I was about thirty and I’d been working there for years – not that it’s an appropriate thing to call anybody.” A spokesman for Bercow said he had no recollection of this event.
These angry tirades and supercilious attitudes are an ugly side of Bercow, and one that would come out in clear detail through his relationship with members of the House of Commons Service.
John Bercow was a reforming Speaker who went about his work in an uncompromising manner. That is the common thread across many of his endeavours. Baroness D’Souza, the former Lord Speaker, notes: “He has been an amazing reformer, and reformers are not often popular. He hasn’t got there by being nice to everyone. I think he’s got there in spite of being particularly not nice to most people and actually fiendishly rude.”
After the 2005 general election, Bercow became a member of the Panel of Chairs, the group of MPs who oversaw events such as Westminster Hall debates and Public Bill Committees. During this time, he enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Commons staff. “In personality terms, he was completely different. He was very warm, polite and sympathetic to officials,” says an ex-staff member.
The tide appeared to turn soon after his election to the Chair in June 2009.
Bercow had vowed to be a bastion for MPs inside and outside of the Chamber. His campaign for the Speakership, led by Labour MP Martin Salter, had centred on the idea of reinvigorating the Commons as a place of scrutiny.
John’s approach was first of all, if the nation is talking about it, then Parliament should be talking about it.
He signalled an immediate departure from convention by abandoning the court dress worn by his predecessors, opting instead to wear a suit and tie with plain robes. “That is very much a personal choice for me. I think that is right for the spirit of the times,” Bercow said.
Through his use of Urgent Questions, the Chamber became the focal point for key developments in the news cycle. Labour MP Hilary Benn says: “John’s approach was first of all, if the nation is talking about it, then Parliament should be talking about it.”
The idea of using UQs as a means of emboldening the House of Commons was first proposed by two senior clerks, Robert Rogers and David Natzler, in a briefing note sent out during the Speakership contest. A Commons source comments: “I don’t remember [Bercow] ever saying since that he owed any debt to them for coming up with that. It’s as if he just dreamt it all up himself.”
Nonetheless, it still fell to Bercow to implement change and champion the use of UQs as a means of holding the government to account. Over nine years his predecessor, Michael Martin, had permitted fewer than 100. By the time Bercow stood down in October 2019, he had granted more than 750 UQs.
Late in 2009, Bercow announced plans for a crèche to be set up on the parliamentary estate, an idea floated by Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda during the campaign for the Speakership. Under the plans, the crèche would replace Bellamy’s bar, the preferred haunt of Conservative MPs, situated in 1 Parliament Street.
Concerns over health and safety and setbacks with the tendering of contracts meant that the crèche was beset by delays. This made Bercow suspicious of the House authorities, particularly Malcolm Jack, the Clerk of the Commons, whom he felt could have been seeking to resist his reforms. “He thought this was a ruse to stop the whole thing," says a former official. “He was sure that it was us blocking it. It was the only occasion I recall him being annoyed with Malcolm personally.” The crèche opened in September 2010.
Jack had served as Clerk of the Commons – the principal adviser to both the Speaker and the House – since 2006. He had a decent working relationship with Bercow, though there were clashes. He rebuked Sally Bercow for seeking to run her campaign to be a Labour councillor in 2010 out of Speaker’s House, telling her “you’ll have to operate from somewhere else”, according to a former colleague. Jack invited the Bercows to a dinner party soon after to “make friends and make up”, adds the source.
To handle Bercow’s more mercurial side, the Clerk would let some issues go if he deemed them to be a low priority. On one occasion, Bercow was taken aback when Jack did not resist a proposed change. “What? I thought we were going to discuss this?” Bercow asked. “It appears you have made your mind up,” replied Jack.
“He may have thought that I was in some way trying to hold him up on one or two of his projects,” says Jack. “Of course, I wasn’t. All I was trying to do was just to make sure that he understood the pitfalls of going down this particular route. But in the end, if the Speaker wants to do that, that’s up to him.”
Bercow was a strong advocate of a £7 million education centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, designed to more than double the number of schoolchildren who visited the Commons from 45,000 to 100,000 a year. But he faced resistance from his counterpart in the Lords. At a joint meeting with Bercow, attended by architects who were designing the proposals, Baroness D’Souza expressed her concerns. “He got really, really cross and he was about to explode. But he didn’t; we were all very heated about that. But you know what, he was right. And I told him, ‘John, I was wrong.’ It’s a really fantastic asset. I don’t think there are many people who would have got that through,” D’Souza says.
He knew my children’s names; he knew how old they were. That will immediately endear you to a person
Bercow’s reforming zeal carried over to roles within the House. “I’ve made a particular point of appointing more women and more BME citizens of the United Kingdom to prominent positions,” he said in 2019. One of the most high profile appointments of his tenure was Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who became the first black and first female Speaker’s Chaplain.
Bercow also made good on his pledge to be a bastion for MPs. When he greeted backbenchers for the first time, he relayed details of their lives. "He knew my children’s names; he knew how old they were. That will immediately endear you to a person, wouldn’t it, when they’ve bothered to find out stuff about you,” says Labour MP Jess Phillips. “It immediately brings a sense of trust between you and him.” Bercow would also be “incredibly patient and protective” of new joiners as they acclimatised to Westminster life, says Phillips.
A number of Bercow’s reforms were laudable. He was happy, however, for some practices to go unchanged. Sources say that he ran Speaker’s Office like a “court”. He continued the tradition of having attendees announced as they walked into the room at the start of every Speaker’s conference, the daily meeting of the deputy speakers and senior Commons clerks. "For all his frank man-of-the-people stuff, he kind of liked that bit of hierarchy and deference,” says a Commons source. Attendees were expected to stand until he entered.
Robert Rogers was working as Clerk Assistant during Bercow’s first two years as Speaker. According to an insider, the pair had a “fantastic relationship” prior to Rogers being appointed Clerk of the Commons on 1 October 2011. “[Robert] totally had him in the palm of his hand, essentially because he wanted to be Clerk. They got on really well. Then as soon as he became Clerk it started to go downhill," says a parliamentary source.
By comparison with Bercow, Rogers was something of an establishment figure. He is a privately educated Oxbridge graduate who had entered the House of Commons Service in 1972. “All that made it quite hard for them to get on. Instead of being in a supplicant role, he was in a rival role. That just put [Bercow’s] back up and made it much harder for the relationship to work,” says a former staff member.
John behaved towards Robert in a way that in normal circumstances would be regarded as unacceptable.
A former aide to Lindsay Hoyle, the most senior deputy speaker, recalls overhearing a frank conversation between Rogers and Bercow in the Speaker’s study. “You could hear the tone if not the words that were being used. It was pretty hectoring on the Speaker’s behalf. It was him dressing Robert down in a way that frankly I thought a Clerk of the House who had served for forty years deserved better than,” recalls the source.
Bercow’s relationship with Hoyle was also much discussed in Westminster. A source in the room recalls Bercow’s ‘bellicose anger’ at Hoyle during a Speaker’s conference early on during his time as deputy speaker. “The guy has mercurial mood swings within a sentence,” the observer says. “I can’t remember what Lindsay told him, but he shouted at him and Lindsay wouldn’t let it go, which is quite right too. Lindsay was actually quite calm, but [Bercow] absolutely bellowed at him. There was total silence, and to this day I regret that I did not stand up and say: 'Do not talk to another human being like that.’ We should have all walked out.”
A parliamentary insider says Hoyle and Bercow were “at war” for many years. “[Lindsay] loathed him. They loathed each other." Friction between Hoyle and Bercow came from suspicions that the former had eyes on the Speakership. “Like all Speakers, they always think that their deputies are after their job,” says a parliamentary source. “[Bercow] is very robust and bruising. Sparks can fly if he meets someone coming the other way.”
The breakdown in Bercow’s relationship with Rogers was a known secret in Westminster. A former Cabinet minister claims Bercow often “berated” the Clerk in front of witnesses: “The fact is, John behaved towards Robert in a way that in normal circumstances would be regarded as unacceptable. He spoke to him in ways that, in my view, showed no sufficient respect for either his character or his position or his authority.”
During a dinner party, Rogers confided his dismay to a member of the House of Lords. “They really, really, really loathed one another. It was a very unhappy place,” the peer says. “One of the things I suppose that really drives John to a complete and utter frenzy is being thwarted. And I think that characteristic of going berserk is an indication of a real lack of confidence in yourself. That’s quite sad, that he has to bully his way through because otherwise he might get bullied.”
On 30 April 2014, Rogers announced he was stepping down as Clerk. Soon after, word of their fractured relationship reached the Commons Chamber.
A source from outside parliament met Bercow at three o’clock one afternoon in Speaker’s Office, which boasts a large desk and a magnificent view of the river Thames. “You can’t sit in that room without running the risk of becoming pompous. It’s very imperial," says the source.
Rogers knocked on the door at 3.25 to let them know they had five more minutes before the next engagement. At 3.30, he knocked again. “Why don’t you f*** off? Don’t you know that we’re in a meeting? F*** off," Bercow said, according to the source in the room. “I was shocked. This is the most distinguished man, and there was considerable animus between him and Robert Rogers because Rogers was more keen to do things straight down the line and he wasn’t prepared to veer off.”
David Cameron put Robert in the Lords simply to spite John
The witness kept things under wraps until they had dinner with Michael Fabricant, the MP for Lichfield and arch-Bercow antagonist, whom they would occasionally meet to sound out the mood of Parliament. “The first and only time I made a mistake was I told him that story. He hated the Speaker,” says the source.
During a tribute to Rogers in the Chamber, Fabricant referenced the tale. “Despite Sir Robert having studied Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and being told at least once in front of others to F. U. C. K. off by you, Mr Speaker, I think that would not have encouraged him to stay.” Bercow responded: “I will ignore that last observation, which suffered from the disadvantage of being wrong.” Sources close to the Speaker denied that he had used the f-word.
Rogers was awarded a peerage in October 2014. A former Cabinet minister says: “David Cameron put him in the Lords simply to spite John, because he knew that [Bercow] had behaved very badly towards him and he wanted to demonstrate that fact.” A former senior official alleges: “Bercow was unbelievably rude to Robert. Not just discourteous, but abusively, insultingly rude.”
Rogers, now Lord Lisvane, lodged a formal bullying complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards against Bercow in January 2020, shortly after it emerged that Jeremy Corbyn had nominated the former Speaker for a peerage. Bercow denies all allegations of bullying.
Since his time as international development spokesman for the Tories, John Bercow had taken a particular interest in the country of Burma, which was decades into a civil war. Benedict Rogers, a human rights campaigner, took Bercow to refugee camps on the Thailand/Burma border in April 2004. In one encounter, Bercow asked a local man how he felt about a soldier who had tortured him. The victim responded: “I love him; he is my brother as a fellow citizen of Burma.” Rogers explains: “The absence of bitterness had a real impact on him.”
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar, during which time she faced fifteen years of house arrest and was unable to see her husband, who died of cancer in 1999, or her sons. She was released in November 2010 and elected to the Burmese Parliament in April 2012, becoming the official leader of the opposition in the process.
Bercow was very keen for Suu Kyi to address parliament in Westminster Hall; an honour that is traditionally reserved for heads of state. Lt-Gen David Leakey, who as Black Rod was the Queen’s official representative in Parliament, was cautious about setting a precedent, as was Baroness D’Souza, the Lord Speaker.
Bercow and Leakey had clashed once before, again over an event in Westminster Hall. Bercow took issue with the seating arrangement for Sally Bercow at Barack Obama’s address in May 2011. “Without any warning at all, he just leapt up from behind the chair and thumped the table. He just went into a torrent of rage about it,” alleges a source who is familiar with what took place.
Suu Kyi was due to address Westminster Hall on 21 June 2012. Bercow was keen that the representatives of the Burmese community were given prominence in the seating arrangement. But Leakey and his deputy, Ted Lloyd-Jukes, had concerns that if the Burmese diaspora were moved further forward there would be questions from MPs and peers, who would in turn be moved back, and whom Suu Kyi was due to address.
Leakey went to the Speaker’s office to discuss the matter with Bercow’s private secretary, Peter Barratt. Bercow came in during the conversation and said he wanted the Burmese diaspora “right in the very front”. Leakey said he had been discussing options with Barratt about a possible solution. “No, you’re not listening, I want them at the front,” Bercow replied. The Speaker broke out into what sources describe as a “furious rage", which culminated in him saying: “You’re a typical product of your background and an anti-Semite to boot.” Leakey responded: “Anti-Semitic, me? You don’t know anything about me.” Bercow left the office and apologised on his return, according to a parliamentary source.
D’Souza explains: “There were tremendous set-tos, which for some unknown and wonderful reason I managed to avoid most of. Black Rod, David Leakey, took most of the flak for me, whether that was intentionally or whether John actually refused to throw his demented tantrums at me, I don’t know.”
During the event, Bercow praised Suu Kyi as “the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity”. Suu Kyi also attended a Speaker’s conference, the daily meeting of Bercow, clerks and deputy speakers.
Suu Kyi was elected State Counsellor in 2015 – the de facto head of government – and has since overseen a profound refugee crisis, as 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar after a brutal military-led campaign of ethnic cleansing. Rogers says both he and Bercow initially resisted joining the “growing bandwagon of criticism” of Suu Kyi. “It has become more and more difficult to do that. I can’t now really defend the position she has ended up in,” he says.
The Speaker... is entitled to proceed as he set out to do
As ministers often experience with civil servants, reformers can face challenges in delivering their respective agendas. The best politicians know that enacting change is a balancing act of leadership and bringing people with you. Determination is a prerequisite; being indecent to colleagues is not.
Bercow argues: “I’ve sought to be a progressive change-maker and some people don’t like change. And so in very simple terms, it’s reform versus reaction. When you insist on reform, and you say, ‘Well, I’ve got a mandate for reform and I want to deliver reform and I want to do it my way,’ there are sometimes forces of resistance who say, ‘Well, no, it’s not appropriate or it shouldn’t be done like this.’ In the end, somebody has to prevail, and I think that the Speaker, in this case, who’s got a mandate, is entitled to proceed as he set out to do.”
For some, Bercow’s characterisation of Commons staff as change-resistant is a fantasy. “Clerks are not conservative by nature; they’re quite radical by nature. If you look at the procedural chicanery of the 2017–19 parliament, all of those things were suggested by clerks,” says one well-placed source. “The idea that clerks are fuddy-duddy old farts who block everything is a very convenient fiction for him.”