Maiden Voyages: John Bercow
In his occasional series, Patrick Kidd looks at maiden speeches of note.
Making a maiden speech can be daunting, though few will have felt as terrified as Phineas Finn. In her own maiden 25 years ago, Eleanor Laing quoted from Anthony Trollope’s description of his creation’s Commons debut: “The Chamber seemed to swim round before [Finn’s] eyes… There arose as it were a sound of waters in his ears, and a feeling as of a great hell around him.” The House, Laing noted, was more welcoming 130 years on.
If the speaker who immediately followed Laing in the Budget debate, on 4 July 1997, felt such nerves he did not show them. John Bercow has never been short on confidence. Nor words. The future Commons Speaker was one of seven debutants that day and he was the most verbose by far. This will not surprise those who observed his later grandiloquent and periphrastic circumlocutions when expounding on the desideratum for brevity from others.
Geraint Davies, who followed him, was a touch sarcastic when he thanked Bercow ‘for his brief remarks’
That is not to say that the proto-Bercow, a skinny lad of 34 with a Hugh Grant quiff, was unimpressive, simply that he hogged the stage. His 23-minute oration was 15 minutes longer than that day’s maiden by Ben Bradshaw, for instance, and surpassed even the opening speech of the secretary of state. It was the Cecil B DeMille of maiden speeches. Geraint Davies, the Labour back bencher who followed him, was a touch sarcastic when he thanked Bercow “for his brief remarks”.
Yet his effort, delivered without notes, was erudite, entertaining, and generous in its praise for others. Indeed, Bercow spent three minutes alone on summing up the other contributors, as if he were the opposition minister concluding the debate. (He was on the front bench but below the gangway; even Bercow wouldn’t grab the despatch box on his first outing.) He lavished praise in every direction, disarming opponents with flattery and claiming with self-deprecation how inadequate his own effort would be, once we had got past all the trailers and reached the main feature.
His gushing for Barry Gardiner – “great style and precision” – gave the opportunity to reflect on a great moment in history. “He referred to Edgware Hospital,” he said. “I have a particular reason to be grateful to Edgware Hospital: I began my life there, with a little assistance from my mother.” Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to hear the first mewl of the infant Bercow was very heaven!
Next he praised his predecessor as MP, George Walden, and again modestly damned himself. “He was always intolerant of stuffiness, of pomposity and of the unthinking acceptance of conventional wisdom,” he said. “It must have come as a great disappointment to him when I was selected.”
Then it was off to Buckingham, which we were told had more than 100 villages – some must have feared he would talk about each one – before embarking, via a brief nod to Enoch Powell, on his main thrust, which was to present Bercow J as the natural heir of Thatcher M, a role he had felt destined to play, he said, since he was a sixth-former in Finchley. Acknowledging that maiden speeches are supposed to be uncontroversial, he attacked the Budget as “the most breath-taking act of betrayal visited on an electorate in living memory” and the new chancellor for “pulverising the pensioner”. Truly Bercow would go on quite some journey over the next 20 years.
It was one of the most ear-catching debuts of the 1997 intake, marking him down as one to follow, so long as you didn’t have a pressing dinner reservation. As Robert Syms, who had lost out on selection to Bercow when the latter first unsuccessfully stood for Parliament, purred: “This is the first time I have heard him speak. I now know why he beat me.”
Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics.
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