21 June 2021

John Bercow has become the David Brent of British politics


John Bercow is back in the news. The former Speaker can contain himself no longer – he has surfaced to tell the world that he has achingly progressive views and has joined the Labour Party.

His new allegiance will come as no surprise to anyone passingly familiar with the man. His relationship with Labour goes back a long way. Chris Mullin, in his famous diaries, described how Bercow won the Speakership with the support of Labour MPs deliberately abandoning the traditions governing the post to cause trouble for the Conservative-led government they knew was coming.

If he took little care to hide his views when in office, he has taken even less since leaving it, including an unconvincing attempt to lend credibility to the campaign against grammar schools as a former MP for an 11+ constituency.

But that clearly wasn’t enough. His formal defection gave him a fresh media round, which he used to mount his usual attacks. Some have suggested that he may even try to return to Parliament… as a Labour MP.

More than anything, however, Bercow seems aggrieved not to have been sent to the House of Lords (the existence of which he surely disapproves of, as is the fashion). He has previously spoken of a ‘conspiracy’ to bar his path to the Upper House.

This is nonsense. Conspiracies are secret. The Government’s refusal to elevate Bercow to the peerage is quite transparent, and entirely justified.

His defenders point out that a place in the Lords is the traditional reward for an outgoing Speaker. But this only serves to highlight their man’s discreditable relationship with tradition. When in post, Bercow was more than happy to strike the pose of a modish moderniser, dispending with anything that embarrassed or inconvenienced him.

I have argued before that his decision to scrap most of the Speaker’s regalia, which served to anonymise the individual beneath the office and thus took a little humility to wear, embodied the flaws in his approach to the role. But even more so the fact he showed no such modernising zeal when it came to the perks of the job.

He still expected MPs to spring aside when he processed through the corridors of Westminster. He was happy enough with the grace-and-favour house and tickets to events. Now he wants the traditional peerage.

Of the traditional practice of former speakers to remain uncontroversial and non-partisan, of course, there is no mention.

Every day, Sir Lindsay Hoyle demonstrates that it is possible to hold the Government robustly to account without compromising the trust and esteem of the Speakership on both sides of the House. His example highlights his predecessor’s poor conduct and further diminishes his tattered legacy, not least by showing that doing the job properly is possible even as a genuine and long-serving Labour man.

Vexing as it might be to have Bercow back in the headlines, however, there is little reason to suppose that he poses much danger to the Government now. 

His previous utility to the left arose from his status as a nominal Tory and his position as the arbiter of the rules and traditions of the Commons. He is too far from his former tribe to bring a significant part of it with him – and good luck running this champion of comprehensives in his old Buckingham seat.

Instead, he’s our David Brent, one more ex-celebrity who can’t let go of the limelight. He’s not yet on stage in a provincial nightclub doing Blind Date with Howard from the Halifax ads. But give him time.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.