John Bercow speaks to TIM WALKER about Remain’s mistake in voting for an early general election, his view of Boris Johnson, and why he thinks it’s wrong to blame Jeremy Corbyn for Brexit.
One had imagined John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons during the most bruising and brutal period of post-war political history, would have emerged from the arena with his face “marred by dust and sweat and blood”. Contrary to Theodore Roosevelt’s famous words, he looks rested and relaxed when I meet him at a smart pub on the south bank of the Thames not far from his home.
He professes not to have had a single sleepless night as a consequence of Brexit and (largely) looks back on the parliamentarians he tried to keep in “order, order” with warmth and affection. He’s promoting Unspeakable, his autobiography, and his publishers actually came to The New European to ask that we interview him. This is not so surprising given how many newspapers have already formed a hostile judgment about him.
It’s thanks to those papers that I know a great deal about Bercow’s expenses, his odd moments of marital discord, the lucrative work he’s lined up for himself since vacating the chair, and, most recently and perhaps damagingly, the allegations that he was a workplace bully.
Bercow, 57, defends himself robustly in his book, but it’s striking, talking to this allegedly ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character, quite how much negative information about him is in the public domain. His predecessors – a lot of them no angels – got off lightly in comparison. “It may be my manner grates on some people,” he tells me. “A number of Conservatives never seemed to forgive me for becoming speaker at all.”
Somewhat poignantly, he talks in the book of how he was looking forward to becoming a member of the House of Lords, but, for the first time in 230 years, that honour looks as if it will be denied to him by Johnson’s government.
“I like to think that the experience I gained over two decades in the House, and as the longest-serving post-war speaker, would have proved useful there, but clearly some people take a view about this. It is of course a long-standing convention that the speaker is offered a peerage after stepping down and this does seem to me to be petty. It’s not exactly consistent with all of this talk from the government of bringing everyone together and letting bygones be bygones.”
Bercow has of course his share of enemies on the government benches and it’s telling that it should now be Jeremy Corbyn who’s pushing for this maverick Tory’s ennoblement. “I think there were people in my own party who expected me to be a craven lickspittle of the executive, but I saw it as my duty as speaker to uphold the rights of parliament and be its champion,” he says.
“Did I do everything perfectly every day I was in the job? No, of course I didn’t. Still, I think the last parliament was a good one. A lot of MPs did what they thought was right. I tried always to fulfil the function of my job: to be a referee, not a player.”
Unlike Sir Lindsay Hoyle, his poker-faced successor as speaker, Bercow has long been clear and unequivocal about his views on Brexit, and this no doubt explains a lot of the antipathy towards him. “Six words always made me believe we should have stayed in the EU: power block, trade block, progressive legislation,” he says. “I accepted the result of the referendum, but I was conscious of a determination in some quarters to ram Brexit through, no matter what, almost as if it were a matter of religious conviction.
“I never felt the House should be in the business of doing anything that would be damaging to our country. I thought a lot about the wisdom of Edmund Burke, the great political philosopher, who didn’t care for politicians who wallowed in the realms of metaphysical abstraction. He always wanted them to be practical. He said MPs owed their constituents not just their industry, but also their judgment and I always tried to create an environment in which they could exercise that.”
He says Theresa May, when she came into office, took the school-mistressy view that parliament was “misbehaving” when it sought to subject her deal for leaving the EU to the normal scrutiny. “I just didn’t see parliament’s job as acting as a nodding donkey and that obviously displeased her. On a personal basis, I always found her courteous, but, even though I’d once worked with her in her days as shadow education secretary, I wouldn’t say I ever felt close to her. I doubt many people in the Commons could ever say that they were.”
He was startled that May didn’t seem to accept the disastrous general election she called in 2017 had materially changed her situation.
“It didn’t occur to her to press the reset button, as she just looked to the Labour Party and its position on Brexit and took that to mean 80% of the electorate still expected her to make the policy a reality, no matter what.
“The flaw with that argument, of course, is that the electorate had not specified how they wanted it to be delivered. MPs kept saying no to her deal because they could see that it would make life materially worse for their constituents.”
I ask Bercow where the Remainers went wrong and he unhesitatingly replies that the Lib Dems, the SNP, and then, eventually, Labour should never have given Johnson the election that he craved. “I didn’t think as speaker it was my place to offer advice to any of the party leaders in relation this, but I’d hoped they wouldn’t agree to this as it was pretty clear what would happen. I would say the day they all signed up to the election was my saddest day as speaker.
“The fixed term parliament act meant there was no reason why the government should not have continued in office for quite some time, and, just before the parties signed up to an election, I’d sensed real traction was gaining for a second referendum. It would certainly have been helpful to have got that out of the way before the general election as inevitably that single issue ended up drowning out all of he others in the election.”
Bercow’s period as speaker coincided with a period when many of the old conventions of the House were thrown by the wayside. “Parliamentary life had in the past depended to a large extent on people behaving like ladies and gentlemen – and being willing to respect the old conventions – but clearly now the old Queensberry Rules no longer apply.
“On occasions we saw the government simply ignoring opposition day motions that passed, if it suited them to do so. Gina Miller’s cases showed that both Mrs May and Mr Johnson were sometimes unwilling not merely to abide by the spirt of the law, but also the letter of it.
“I was of course accused of disregarding convention from time to time, too, but I was always trying to do what was right by parliament. The truth is the wording of a lot of the rules we have is very vague. When, for instance, I selected Dominic Grieve’s amendment to a business of the house motion in the name of the government, it had the effect of bringing forward a proposal in three days that would normally have taken three weeks.
“In that instance, I wasn’t disobeying a standing order, but simply interpreting the meaning of the word ‘forthwith’ in a way that hadn’t been done before. The government chief whip Julian Smith got very angry about that and came in to my office and banged the table. I told him he was acting in a way that was discourteous and threatening the wood.
“Before the last election, I just didn’t see it as my role as the speaker to seek to protect the government from the absence of a majority. Do I now think there is a case for a written constitution? Yes, I think there is. I would certainly hope if that were to happen, prorogation would be looked at, thought through and its uses properly and precisely defined.”
Bercow is in no doubt where the blame for Brexit happening rests: the political classes. “David Cameron should never have gambled everything on the EU referendum going his way. He said he thought he would win because he always did. He’d never been passionately pro-European in the past and people found it difficult to accept him as its advocate. I know a lot of MPs who voted to hold the referendum now bitterly regret it.
“It’s fashionable to then blame Mr Corbyn for failing to oppose Brexit in the House. He has his flaws, but the truth is he was put into an impossible position – trying to keep the different factions in his own party together and the electorate at large. I would have welcomed it if he had tried to make the case more for the EU, but I appreciate it was not easy.”
Bercow says the media certainly did not help matters. “It was the height of irresponsibility for certain newspapers to brand people as traitors and enemies of the people for daring to hold an opinion different from their own and that helped to raise the decibel level to the extent few people could hear themselves think. The way that people used the internet was also a factor. I received death threats myself online and in the post as I know that others did and this again was not conducive to helping rational debate.
“There is an issue, too, about what happens to people when they get elected as MPs. Their work and social life necessarily tends to revolve around other members of their parties. It’s all too easy in that environment for them to start to lose a sense of themselves. They become like corporate citizens or part of a tribe. Keeping to their party lines can then become less important to them than doing what they know in their hearts to be right.”
Bercow believes it took his membership of the hard right Tory Monday Club in the early 1980s to make him reconnect with who he really was. “I suppose it was this desire to conform – and to an extent the influence of my father who felt new Commonwealth immigration had been less successful than Jewish immigration – that had got me involved with this outfit.
“Then one day I heard a member of the club talking disparagingly about Jews and he said, when I mentioned that I was Jewish, he didn’t of course mean me. It was like he regarded me as a tame one or something and that was my light bulb moment.”
In his book, Bercow praises the MPs who were willing to think for themselves in the House – Dominic Grieve prominent among them – and pours scorn on a lot of the party men and women. He talks of Cameron’s “deep-seated arrogance,” May as a “robotic PM with not an ounce of empathy,” the “sub-standard” leader of the House Andrea Leadsom, not to mention his one-time boss, the “oily and cold” Lord Howard.
Still, rather disappointingly from my point of view, he admits to rather liking Johnson. Bercow once comprehensively beat the prime minister in a game of tennis and recalls him accepting his defeat with good grace. The same might be said of Bercow in relation to Brexit.
When the scale of Johnson’s general election victory became clear, he had no problem accepting that the United Kingdom would have to leave the European Union. Still, he warns the most ardent ideologues who say it’ll “never” again rejoin to be wary of hubris.
“Never is a very long time and no one can say for certain how this is going to pan out,” he says. “It’s quite possible that within 15 years – maybe even 10 – we could return. It’s certainly a profoundly undemocratic thing for members of our generation to try to tie the hands of future generations. Youngsters who’ll become eligible to vote during this period may well see things very differently.”
Bercow makes the point that phase one of the Brexit process – the terms under which the UK leaves – will be a matter for Johnson’s government, but phases two and three – agreeing on what basis the country trades with the rest of the world and putting that into practice – will be up to other actors, such as the US and, yes, the EU.
“It’s not easy to work out what Mr Johnson’s view of no-deal is, but, while obviously not something any sensible individual would wish for, it can’t be ruled out. My hunch is we’ll end up with a very minimalist deal, which will cover goods, but not services, which will make life difficult as we are a services economy.
“Whatever way we leave the EU, we will be disadvantaged financially. It was always going to be about the wanton infliction of self-harm. If people feel the effects of that – and they feel it quickly – or it turns out these supposedly easy deals can’t be tied up within a reasonable period of time, then anything is possible, including another referendum.”
His book is an important historical document which recounts very well how the country got into the mess it’s currently in. It’s a chronicle of weak men and women, delusion and lost opportunities, but it ends on an optimistic note, with Bercow saying that he has no doubt that our parliament and politics will rise to the challenges ahead. Bercow may not have been on the winning side, but he feels he stayed true to his convictions and now harbours no sense of resentment. “I always knew that the overwhelming majority of people who voted for Brexit, and who continue to support it, also want the best for our country. All we can do now – all of us – is to try to make the best of it, and to learn from the experience.”