8 March 2022

John Bercow is disgraced – but don’t forget those who cheered his biased, sneering Speakership

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Well, there it is in black and white. An independent report has found that John Bercow was a ‘serial bully’ during his time as Speaker of the House of Commons and ‘a serial liar’ when it came to excusing his own conduct. Bercow has responded to the report with a characteristic lack of contrition. Among his complaints was that the inquiry took so long – but then it had a lot of evidence to plough its way through. 

‘It is for historians to judge whether the respondent was a successful reforming Speaker of the House of Commons’, the Independent Expert Panel concludes. ‘However, there was no need to act as a bully in order to achieve that aim. A great office can be filled forcefully and effectively without descending to such behaviour.’ 

That was not all. The report’s authors say that had Bercow still been an MP ‘we would have determined that he should be expelled by resolution of the House’ and that he ‘should never be permitted a pass to the Parliamentary estate’. With typical humility, Bercow has since responded that he is not, in fact, banned, but can enter Parliament ‘with the help of a friendly passholder’. 

The report hinged on the experiences of Angus Sinclair and Lord Lisvane – both former parliamentary staffers –and Kate Emms, who still works in Parliament. 

The report does not mince its words. It founds that those who fell out of favour with Bercow faced ‘an intimidating and hostile environment’, with ‘intimidatory” and ‘threatening conduct’. There was verbal abuse, ‘often made at length and at volume’, late night phone calls, displays of anger and efforts to humiliate victims in front of others. 

The Panel’s remit was on these specific complainants, ‘rather than looking at any broader pattern’ – but even with that narrow focus there was an abundance of evidence. 

We read of someone in a position of authority behaving erratically and raging at others for his own failings. He would demand a meeting be cancelled at the last minute and that his staff give a dishonest explanation. Unwanted media or restrictions on the accommodation at Speaker’s House prompted inevitable ‘shoot the messenger’ episodes. 

At one stage Bercow apparently threw down his mobile phone with the result it was smashed to pieces. (‘The complainant also describes how the son of the office cleaner gathered up the parts of the mobile phone and later reassembled it.’). 

Bercow would be enraged by the checks and balances that applied to his role – for example over the recruitment of a chaplain to the Speaker. 

Trips abroad would prove especially problematic, with one of the complainants detailing ‘a temper tantrum’ when security would not let Bercow bring a particular ‘toiletry item’ on a flight to Kenya. The report goes on to mention that the ‘the complainant recalls that the item in question was toothpaste; the witness recalls shaving foam. We do not consider the distinction important’.

It would be easy to regard these kind of incidents as farcical. But these are people devoted to public service and working to earn a living who found themselves beholden to someone who had become unstable and deeply unpleasant. It would not have been funny for them. 

While completely damning, the report is not a surprise. I first came across Bercow nearly 40 years ago, and it strikes me that he hasn’t really changed much. I remember him being very articulate – but you never really believed what he said. He would bob up at a conference and torrents of words would come out – they might be gushing and effusive and then, at the flick of a switch, sneering abuse. There was energy and determination in his politics but it was entirely driven by personal ambition. Like many in politics, he combined genuine ability in various respects with some serious character flaws.

But even those who have not met him will have noted the petulant episodes during his time in The Speaker’s chair. While he was supposed to maintain orderly deliberation, Bercow often visibly struggled with his own temper. He was furious at anyone questioning his impartiality, while at the same time showing blatant favouritism and exercising grudges.

A survivor

How was Bercow able to survive so long in such a prestigious position? Former US President Lyndon B. Johnson said that the first rule of politics was to be able to count. Bercow understood that. When he first stood for Speaker he was nominally a Conservative MP but became the effective Labour candidate, which proved handy in a Commons with a Labour majority. Later he managed to keep going by having enough Conservative MPs who appreciated being indulged when seeking to ‘catch his eye’ to ask a question or give a speech. 

But it was the bulk of the Labour MPs with whom he had a solid and transactional relationship. This especially applied to Bercow’s willingness to twist Parliamentary convention in an attempt to thwart Brexit.

In a place like Westminster, few could have been completely unaware of what Bercow was like. Yet it suited Labour, the champions of feminism and worker’s rights, to ignore long-standing allegations about how Bercow was treating his underlings. As the journalist Kate Maltby tweets: ‘What broke the hearts of the female Commons staff I’ve spoken to are the ‘feminists’ who denied their experience because Bercow backed Remain or supported Labour’.  Indeed, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s last acts as Labour leader was to nominate Bercow for a peerage – which was, of course, overruled. Bercow is, of course, now a paid up Labour member – though given the contents of this report he might not be for much longer.

I wonder how many of those MPs who joined the tribute to Bercow when he stood down feel embarrassed?

It’s true that politics is often about grubby compromises, making alliances where you can. But the important point about the report isn’t really about Bercow’s reputation. He had already destroyed that himself. Had he even partially been able to overcome his nature perhaps he would now have his peerage. But, as with the scorpion taking the frog across the river, he can’t. The real challenge is for all those MPs who passed by on the other side.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

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