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Tue, 26 January 2021

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‘John Bercow: Call to Order’: the personal and political journey of one of the most influential figures of the Brexit age

‘John Bercow: Call to Order’: the personal and political journey of one of the most influential figures of the Brexit age

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4 min read

This must-read biography is illuminated with acerbic commentary from Bercow’s admirers and detractors and takes an unflinching look at his Speakership and legacy

For those interested in the genesis of a figure Sebastian Whale describes as “one of the most talented politicians of his generation” (and who are prepared to relive the Parliamentary agonies of 2019), this biography is a compelling read.

Whale’s account illustrates how Bercow’s actions over the final, eventful year of his Speakership cemented his reputation in two quite divergent ways: among some as a progressive and reforming Speaker who exerted Parliament’s authority over the government, while among others as a self-absorbed and infuriating Chair, who brought the Speakership into disrepute through open partisanship. He shows how the particular confluence of Brexit, minority government and the unanticipated consequences of the FTPA trained the public spotlight on the Commons – providing a stage upon which John Bercow leapt with alacrity.  

A year on from the events of autumn 2019, a general election and a global pandemic have transformed a Westminster dominated by Parliament into one in which the Executive is now firmly back in the ascendancy. Far too much so for those who decry the way the government has restricted opportunities for MPs to scrutinise its coronavirus response. Among them is Bercow’s successor, Sir Lindsay Hoyle. Sir Lindsay has not held back in articulating his displeasure with government discourtesies towards the House, criticising it for showing a “total disregard” for Parliament. In this he has responded just as Bercow might have done (although with greater brevity). But any further analogy between the approach of Bercow and that of his former deputy is harder to draw. 

Whale’s book sheds light on the early experiences which shaped Bercow’s later approach to the role, illuminating the account with the acerbic commentary provided by his admirers and detractors. It is remarkable how many times Whale shows the former being converted to the latter (and vice versa) by Bercow’s peculiar combination of charm, kindness, aggression and disdain for those he perceived as opponents.    

Predictably, given the lack of love lost between Bercow and Hoyle – an open secret towards which the book nods – Sir Lindsay has been at pains to define himself against Bercow’s approach, especially his inconsistent use of precedent. 

Whale highlights the perceptions of partiality that dogged Bercow’s Speakership. Noting that, when standing for election, Bercow said that “the Speaker should always be neutral within this Chamber, but he or she should not be neutral about this Chamber” he argues that he was far more successful in meeting the second of these aspirations than the first. It is unsurprising, then, that Hoyle now chooses to highlight the contrast in his own approach.

The shift in style is also indicative of Hoyle’s broader acceptance of the legitimacy of government’s wish for greater certainty in the conduct of Parliamentary business. Whale reminds us that Bercow had little sympathy for the preferences of ministers – recounting that when David Cameron confronted him for allowing PMQs to run until 12.37 he “looked regretful” and yet “the next week, he let it go on until 12.45”.  

Beyond the procedural, Hoyle has brought a shift in emphasis to the administration of the House. But whereas Bercow coupled his backing for Members with an instinctive distrust of many House staff, Hoyle has brought energy to addressing staff concerns. Whale devotes several chapters to detailing the number of people who reported experiences of bullying by Bercow (which he denies). What emerges is how these uninvestigated allegations undermined the credibility of the changes the House introduced in the wake of #MeToo. 

For many, including Whale, they also undermined Bercow’s reputation. Others remain certain that a ‘progressive figure’ who did much to expand Parliamentary outreach and brought a reforming zeal to the Speakership could not be capable of bullying. Whale’s enlightening biography will enable readers to reach their own conclusions.

Hannah White is Deputy Director at Institute for Government. 

John Bercow: Call to Order by Sebastian Whale is published by Biteback. Disclosure: Sebastian Whale is the former Political Editor of The House.

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