Review: Unspeakable by John Bercow
What John Bercow’s moderately entertaining memoir lacks in self-reflection and modesty it more than makes up for in score-settling vitriol, writes Patrick Kidd
In politics, too many aspire to be a noun rather than a verb. Titles matter more than actions. It was something acknowledged by John Bercow in his pitch to be Speaker of the Commons in 2009. “I do not want to be someone,” he told MPs. “I want to do something.” They cannot say they were not warned.
He set out his goals clearly: reform of expenses, giving more power to backbenchers, forcing the executive to be more accountable and using his office to be an ambassador for Parliament to the world beyond Westminster. “I know that it is a tall order and I am only a little chap,” he concluded, “but I believe that I can rise to the occasion.”
In these areas, Bercow was as good as his word, irritating though that may have been for the party sitting to his right, which for nine of his ten years as Speaker was technically his own tribe. I say technically since, as David Cameron noted on being told by Sadiq Khan that he was going to vote for a Tory as Speaker, the 2009 model Bercow did not really count as a Conservative. It had been quite some journey from Monday Club europhobe to woke Remainer.
Bercow did indeed give louder voice to backbenchers (those he liked, anyway), allowing far more urgent questions than had been the custom and promoting the use of Standing Order 24 as a means of having debates the government would rather avoid. He granted 35 of these, though that was barely a third of what was sought. In outreach, he deserves praise for throwing open the Speaker’s House for charities to use and for developing the schools’ education centre.
The debit side of the account, though, is well stacked. He was, as he acknowledges in this hastily produced autobiography, a “Marmite” Speaker. Far from echoing Speaker Lenthall, who famously had no tongue to speak but as the House was pleased to direct him, Bercow was never shy of giving his tongue free rein and sharing his wisdom. Longwindedness was inherited. “Mum would joke that Dad would never use one word where one hundred would do,” he writes. At school he was described as “a walking dictionary”.
He writes that a Speaker should be like a football referee and intervene very little, yet barely a question time or statement passed without a Bercow oration. He hogged the limelight more than his predecessors (Sir Lindsay Hoyle, his deputy for more than nine years and successor, gets less of a mention in this book than “my hero” Roger Federer) and while he disputes the allegations that he could be a backroom bully to his staff, his front-of-house behaviour, with his tendency to belittle and preach, was often undignified.
Alun Michael, the former Welsh secretary, observed when Bercow first expressed an interest in the job that “putting you in the chair is probably the only way to keep you in order”. It proved not to be so.
Bumptiousness and self-belief have long been Bercow traits. This is a man, after all, who paid £1,000 so that he could travel by helicopter between two selection meetings held on the same evening. His first ambition was to be Tory chairman but he soon built a reputation as a backbench Rottweiler. Tony Blair’s slap-down at PMQs that Bercow was “nasty and ineffectual in equal quantities” was enjoyed by the House but showed that the Buckingham MP’s needle was irritating the prime minister.
The problem was that his own leaders failed to recognise his greatness. While other members of the 1997 intake were advanced, such as Andrew Lansley (dismissed by Bercow as “staggeringly mind-blowingly insurpassably boring”) and Theresa May (“as wooden as a coffee table”), Bercow was kept in his place. Word got back to him that William Hague, his first leader, asked Norman Lamont when Bercow was going to “join the human race”. The insult was logged in the Bercow grievance bank and is here repaid in spades.
Hague, he writes, was “buttoned up, geeky, frankly a bit weird”. When, as Leader of the Commons, Hague failed in an attempt to make it easier for Tory MPs to remove Bercow, his adversary sniffs: “I doubt he had the emotional intelligence to realise that he had been humiliated.”
Other Tory adversaries also get the sharp side of his tongue. Michael Howard is a “decidedly cold fish” and oily; Andrea Leadsom is “nasty and bigoted”; Cameron, who he says “travelled light in terms of policy ideas”, would not appear in a pantheon of great leaders but “in a list of opportunist lightweights would be at the top”.
Boris Johnson, who he calls an undistinguished debater, is damned with the faint praise of being “at his occasional best, a passably adequate politician in an age not replete with them”. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, is “sincere, true to himself, natural, authentic” with not one critical word added. What a gifted parliamentarian the world somehow failed to appreciate!
As score-settling vitriol goes, this is all moderately entertaining but it has the whiff of the fictional broadcaster Alan Partridge’s self-serving autobiography in which every anecdote ends with the phrase “needless to say, I had the last laugh”.
There is little reflection and no self-criticism or regret. It is just a lot of what he might have called “chuntering from a sedentary position”. One would have hoped that Bercow could have been a bigger man than this.
Patrick Kidd is editor of the Times diary. His book, The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics, published by Biteback, is out now