The Bollocked by Bercow Club
In an extract from Call to Order, his new biography of John Bercow, Sebastian Whale hears from MPs on the receiving end of the former Speaker’s short temper
After the 2015 general election, Charles Walker decided it would be wise to meet John Bercow on a regular basis.
The Conservative MP – the only member of his party to nominate Bercow for the Speakership – had proven to be not only one of the Chair’s staunchest defenders but also one of his most reliable sounding boards. Given he was intimate with many of Bercow’s failings, he would provide counsel on keeping his cool. “Mr Speaker, the more relaxed you are, the better humour the House is in. The more irascible you are, the more it has a negative effect on the Chamber,” he would tell his friend.
Even Bercow has admitted that he had a propensity to be aggressive from the chair. “I tended, particularly early on, sometimes to react to displays of bad temper or anger rather officiously. But I think on the whole it works better in calming people down and defusing difficult situations if you can deploy humour,” he told an audience in 2017.
To outsiders, his eccentricities and unique use of the English language have made him a figure of intrigue. But those on the receiving end of his reprimands lament the trivialisation of his behaviour, which they believe speaks to an underlying character failing. Some go further than that and argue that his actions are tantamount to bullying.
As the number of MPs told off by the Speaker grew, a new group in the Commons began to take shape: the Bollocked By Bercow Club.
Anna Soubry first came across Bercow on the student politics scene as a former member of the Federation of Conservative Students. When she was sworn in as an MP in 2010, Bercow reminded her of their past affiliation.
Soubry proved to be one of the more vocal backbenchers in what was dubbed the ‘naughty corner’, a section where Tory MPs sat to the right of the Speaker’s eye. But her approach, she tells me, was sanctioned by certain members of the frontbench. “We were all hugely encouraged to be as loud as possible. It came quite naturally to me,” she says.
John couldn’t help himself. He would pick somebody and deliberately humiliate them in a way that was profoundly unseemly in somebody holding such an incredibly powerful office
Soubry had bedded in well and was appointed as PPS to Simon Burns, the Health Minister and Bercow enemy no. 1. This, she feels, did not ingratiate her to Bercow. “I think that was a big problem. One of the dangers in this place, people assume that you’re like them in the way that you think and operate,” she explains. “So, if they have been ambitious and have been prepared to hitch their career to somebody else’s tailcoat, then they project on other people.”
In September 2012, Soubry was made a minister in the Department of Health. Two months later, in the space of ninety minutes, she received three reprimands from Bercow. “[She] thinks her views are relevant, but we are not interested,’ he told Soubry during PMQs. In a subsequent debate, Bercow rebuked Soubry twice more. “I do not want the sedentary chuntering, the finger-wagging and all the rest of it. The hon. Lady can say ‘pooh’ if she wants, but she will accept the ruling of the chair and either behave or get out of the Chamber. I do not mind which it is.” After a further interruption, Bercow said: “It is totally unacceptable to behave in this way and it will stop straight away. I hope the whip has noticed it, and I will be speaking to others about the matter.”
A former Tory MP who stepped down in 2019 says they used to “fantasise” about Soubry walking over to Bercow in the chair, giving him a “smack across the face” and saying: “Don’t you ever speak to me like that again.”
Soubry comments: “When I became a government minister, I’m afraid there were a number of occasions when he publicly humiliated me. It was awful. A certain absolute criticism of John that I have is that he can’t help himself. There have been a number of instances when he would pick somebody and deliberately humiliate them in a way that is profoundly... not just unfair, but it is profoundly unseemly in somebody who holds such an incredibly powerful and important office. It’s a complete contradiction with the other things that he clearly believes in and he stands for.”
Notwithstanding these remarks, Soubry was in danger of being named and chucked out of the Chamber over her behaviour. Sir George Young, the Chief Whip, told her she would have to go and see the Speaker, who was threatening to take a minister’s scalp.
Soubry spoke to Bercow’s office and asked to see him. She preempted a telling off by saying: “Mr Speaker, I am so sorry – it’s inexcusable and it’s not good enough and I know that I’m in the wrong and this is not acceptable behaviour. I know it’s got to stop.” Soubry says: “You could see him thinking, ‘I was going to give her a bollocking.’”
Claire Perry, another Tory MP who started in 2010, was once so incandescent that she had not been called during a debate that she stormed into a tearoom and asked: “What have I got to do to be called by the Speaker? Give him a blow job?” After the remark was leaked to the media, Perry reflected: “I suppose it was a lesson in that you can’t be too careful about what you say.”
Six years later, after Bercow called Perry out for “dilation", the then Business Minister commented: “The last time I talked about dilation, I was in labour.” In a condescending tone, Bercow shot back: “What is required is a brief answer and a brief question – no dilation.”
Perry wrote to the Speaker the next day and accused him publicly of sexism. Bercow responded: “While, respectfully, I do not accept the points made, perhaps it would be nice to meet for a ‘clear the air’ cup of tea as soon as possible?”
Bercow’s feud with Simon Burns would peak in June 2010. He had twice encouraged the health minister to face forward when speaking at the despatch box, so that the House could hear his responses. “It’s a very simple point; I have made it to others, and they have understood it,” he said. Unamused, Burns mouthed to himself, “Stupid, sanctimonious little dwarf”. Burns told friends: “With hindsight, ‘little’ was probably superfluous.”
The news sparked outrage from dwarfism charities, including Walking with Giants, who demanded a meeting. His press secretary had typed out an apology to Bercow the next day, but Burns changed it to say he was sorry if he offended “any group of people”. No formal reprimand came through from No 10, and no meeting with Walking with Giants took place.
The rebukes upset many on the Conservative side, some of whom remembered Bercow’s own behaviour as a backbencher. It also further entrenched perceptions among Bercow sceptics that he was biased against them. One Tory MP, Rob Wilson, went to extraordinary lengths to prove the Speaker’s partiality.
Being fair and impartial isn’t about having a statistical quota, it’s about dealing with the issue that arises
In a study, produced on 18 July 2011, Wilson found that since the general election in May 2010, Tories received 257 admonishments compared to 109 for Labour MPs, based on the number of occasions Bercow had barked ‘Order’ at an MP. For a comparison, Wilson found that Bercow interrupted Labour MPs 162 times during his first year, twenty more than their Tory counterparts. At the time, there were 349 Labour MPs and only 210 Tories.
“Those MPs who have suggested bias in the Speaker’s handling of the Commons would feel vindicated by these figures,” said Wilson.
The following year, Wilson produced another report that claimed the number of Urgent Questions granted by the Speaker was “massively in Labour’s favour”, with Bercow twice as likely to force coalition ministers into appearing before the House than their Labour predecessors.
The person who received the most rebukes was Michael Gove with eighteen (Burns had ten). Bercow once famously told the Education Secretary: "Mr Gove, you really are a very over-excitable individual. You need to write out 1,000 times ‘I will behave myself at Prime Minister’s Questions.’”
Bercow told an audience some years later: “Being fair and impartial isn’t about having a statistical quota, it’s about dealing with the issue that arises. Now, if at a particular time, on a given day or over a period, one side is particularly aggressively criticising the chair, or particularly aggressively shouting, then it is that side with which you have to deal. You can’t make up miscreants on the other side of the House where they don’t exist.”
Mark Pritchard was in the Chamber for Business Questions on Thursday 13 January 2011. He had been in his place at the start of the session, as Bercow expected of all would-be questioners. To him, it amounted to a basic courtesy to the House. However, Pritchard had left briefly for a toilet break, leading to confusion, and Bercow did not call him on his return.
Pritchard wrote a note to Bercow about the mix-up and dropped it in Speaker’s Office. He was walking along the corridor behind the Speaker’s chair when he saw Bercow and his parliamentary entourage coming back the other way.
After he walked past, Pritchard heard Bercow mutter: “The courtesy of the House is that Honourable Members should stand aside when the Speaker passes by.” Pritchard responded: “Mr Speaker, don’t point at me. I am not here to be abused by you”. Bercow countered: “You will obey the courtesies of the House!” Pritchard exclaimed: “Who do you think you are, you’re not f****** royalty!”
Allies of Pritchard note that he is not prone to using such language – indeed, he had been known to say “schmidt” instead of “shit”. As the outburst became known, Pritchard received texts of appreciation from fellow MPs, journalists and other Speakers in the Commonwealth, a friend reports. Some enterprising soul even printed off a batch of T-shirts carrying the remark.
So when Keith Simpson became the latest Tory MP to receive a slapdown from the Speaker, Pritchard tapped him on the shoulder and commented: “Welcome to the BBB Club.”
The Bollocked By Bercow Club was in its relative infancy. Tory whips had joked about creating badges inscribed with the letters, and two years later, Sheryll Murray, who had the required equipment, was approached to produce them. Joining Burns, Soubry, Pritchard and co. in the BBB Club was Ian Liddell-Grainger, who on 1 July 2013 was falsely accused by Bercow of “rude, stupid and pompous” behaviour for appearing to interrupt Labour MP Stella Creasy (it was in fact his colleague Alan Duncan who had interjected).
Some backbenchers took issue with the way Bercow would announce MPs’ names when calling them to speak. Famously, he would bellow “Mr Kenneth Claaaaarke” when calling the former Chancellor (Clarke says he was never bothered by this). Conservative backbenchers Andrew Selous and Peter Bone would also have their own monikers. Friends say it speaks to Bercow’s sense of humour.
The thing is he’s clever. The people he fears or feared, he would try and neutralise them
Though he was accumulating detractors, Bercow was a dab hand at rapprochements. His relationship with Soubry, who left the Conservative party in February 2019, has vastly improved over the years. “After I did what I did, I like to think that there was respect there. That was the impression I got,” she says.
Bercow would similarly extend olive branches to Pritchard, Perry and former arch-opponent Nadine Dorries, who had previously campaigned against his Speakership bid in 2009. In Pritchard’s case, there was a reconciliation which culminated in him receiving an invite to a New Year’s Eve party at the Bercows’ a year later. He, like Dorries, would be invited to join the Chairman’s Panel, which carries an extra £15,000 in salary.
“The thing is he’s clever. The people he fears or feared, he would try and neutralise them,” says a source in the Conservative party.
Few argue that Bercow would prevent any of his opponents from having the opportunity to speak in the Chamber. “He’s pretty good at making certain that all views in the House are called,” says a member of the BBB Club.
A former Cabinet minister argues: “You’ve got to control the House of Commons. In general terms, we have to have broad shoulders and we have to accept to some extent that sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Being given a bollocking by the Speaker falls within that bracket.”
Charles Walker explains: “In most cases, when he snaps at a colleague, it’s a bit like a normally well-behaved dog: when they snap, they suddenly get frighteningly worried afterwards. John doesn’t like it and he’s very good at making it up with colleagues if they allow him to and he allows himself to, which in most cases he does.”
Despite some people’s best efforts to prove otherwise, Bercow did take action against opposition MPs.
During his tenure, Bercow expelled from the Commons Paul Flynn, who accused Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, of lying to Parliament over the conflict in Afghanistan. Next up was Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who accused Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers of “deliberate deception”. Labour’s Dennis Skinner, the long-serving backbencher, was despatched for referring to David Cameron as “dodgy Dave” (though Bercow had previously let the remark go unchecked on four occasions). In June 2018, SNP leader Ian Blackford was named for disregarding Bercow’s ruling during PMQs and was followed out of the Chamber by the rest of his party. And Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle was asked to leave after he grabbed the mace in protest at Theresa May’s decision to pull the vote on her Brexit deal on 10 December 2018.
SNP MP Angus MacNeil, whom Bercow referred to as a ‘cheeky chappy’, would also be called out for heckling. “I loved it,” he says. “I can’t complain about any of the times that he reprimanded me. I’ve contributed my fair share of decibels to the Commons Chamber.”
MPs from smaller parties are broadly positive about Bercow’s Speakership. “He was greatly admired and loved by an awful lot on our side. There was another lot who were not so sure of him. He was a mercurial figure,” says MacNeil. Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the former SNP MP, adds: “For me, Bercow definitely championed the opportunity for backbenchers to speak in Parliament. As a result of that and along with Brexit, there are more and more people watching Parliament.”
During the coalition years, some Lib Dems did feel that Bercow should have allowed them more opportunity to express their own independent voice when it diverged with that of the Conservatives. “I felt there could have been more accommodation to allow that to help us increase the profile of the Lib Dems as opposed to the coalition,” says Tom Brake. After the 2015 election, when the Lib Dems were left with just eight MPs, some felt that Bercow was not playing fair. “He treated the Liberal Democrats poorly in the 2015–17 parliament,” says former Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland. “Not because they had lost their third-party status, which we had, but by not giving the same parity and time to the leader and MPs that had been afforded to previous smaller parties.”
Bercow was often by no means in the wrong. In October 2015, he accused Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, of behaving in a ‘discourteous and incompetent’ way for the length of his response to an Urgent Question, which curtailed time allotted for backbenchers. Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, was firmly rebuked for referring to his opposite number Emily Thornberry as Lady Nugee, in reference to her husband, Sir Christopher Nugee, a High Court judge. "We do not address people by the titles of their spouses. It is inappropriate and frankly sexist to speak in those terms, and I am not having it in this Chamber," he said.
Ed Balls recalls an incident in which a Conservative MP mocked his stammer. “The Speaker jumped up and really went for her. The next day, she wrote me a letter apologising,” he says.
He’ll be one of the most interesting, fascinating, perhaps one of the most successful, but he won’t go down as a great Speaker. Why not? He’s a bully
Though Wilson’s numbers point to a willingness to tell off Tory MPs, to conclude that Bercow is biased on that basis seems a stretch. As Bercow put it: “Yes, I periodically excoriate a colleague for bad behaviour. But I do so on the basis of who’s behaving badly, not on the basis of a party allegiance.”
Bercow is far from being the first Speaker to be accused of bias. The election of Selwyn Lloyd in 1971 was controversial, not least because he had served as Foreign Secretary and Chancellor for Conservative governments. However, as Vernon Bogdanor, professor at King’s College London, notes, Lloyd ‘proved a successful and impartial Speaker’. Margaret Thatcher took issue with Jack Weatherill, claiming that he was biased against her administration, while many Tories felt Speaker Martin was in hock to the Labour government.
Critics of Bercow say that his temperament would not allow calmer heads to prevail in the Chamber. As politics became more contentious, this shortfall would become more pronounced. “I don’t think he has helped what would have been a charged atmosphere anyway,” says a former aide to Theresa May.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who proposed Bercow after the 2010 election, says while it is right for the Speaker to keep backbenchers in check, Bercow went out of his way “to try and humiliate them”. Bercow, he argues, “makes long, very sarcastic remarks, and you’re left with the view that he’s more interested in the sound of his own voice and how smart he’s being. I don’t think that’s the Speaker’s job.”
Rifkind concludes: “He’ll be one of the most interesting, fascinating, perhaps one of the most successful, but he won’t [go down as] a great Speaker. Why not? Because of his personality. He’s a bully.”
Next week: Bercow and the Clerks
The untold story of the former Speaker’s fraught relationship with parliamentary authorities
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