Natural Order: John Bercow revisited

John Bercow the Speaker of the House of Commons

John Bercow has gone from thorn in the side to darling of the backbencher, meme and national treasure. With the news that the Speaker of the House of Commons is stepping down from the role he’s held for a decade, I thought it was time to repost an interview (I’m shocked to find) I did nine years ago. Looking at the accompanying images I see that we’ve all aged a bit. But some of the Speaker’s pronouncements back then have proved prescient.

As an ice-breaker, it takes some beating – after asking about my journey to his office John Bercow reveals he briefly lodged in the house I live in when he first moved to his Buckingham constituency.
“It was freezing,” he remembers.
“It still is,” I reply.

John has been returned with a large majority ever since that first rung on the political ladder, but during last year’s election canvassing he found a frosty response on the doorstep. Possibly stirred up by mischievous independent candidates and the UK Independence Party’s leader Nigel Farage, who stood against him, the notion that the Speaker’s electorate is disenfranchised hit the local and national headlines. Why no fuss from the two previous Speakers’ – Betty Boothroyd’s and Michael Martin’s – constituents?

Known for his verboseness, John tells me in great detail why he thinks the age-old tradition for the major parties to withdraw their opposition from the Speaker’s ballot sheet caused such a furore in 2010. In a nutshell, Buckingham has a savvy and vociferous electorate not afraid to express their educated opinions – and they’d had to wait the full five-year term to exercise their right to vote only to find a disparate group of independents standing alongside the Speaker of the House of Commons. John insists he takes nothing for granted even though he’s certain his new role as Speaker gives him more clout to represent his constituency than any backbench politician or minister would enjoy.

On HS2

That explanation given, I tackle the prospective devastation the High Speed 2 rail link will wreak on the Chilterns, Aylesbury Vale, Buckingham and beyond and what he can do about it.

I’m profoundly opposed to this ill-conceived, unnecessary, wasteful and damaging project.

“First of all, there’s the economic point that when we’re bust it’s extraordinary to contemplate such a project; secondly, there will be an enormous cost but no obvious benefit to the constituency,” says John, leaning forward in his chair.

An £8bn investment for the railways was announced in November but that sum seems small change compared to the £15.8 – £17.4bn estimated budget for the HS2 link. During the last Parliament John quizzed Labour’s then Transport Secretary Lord Andrew Adonis on the scheme’s “all pain, no gain” approach to Buckinghamshire (no stops are planned in the county) and was told slowing up the journey would damage HS2’s business case.

John checklists the villages and suburbs set to suffer from noise pollution, property blight and a too-complicated compensation scheme and reveals he’s also aired his views in private meetings with the current Transport Secretary Philip Hammond and Minister Theresa Villiers. His talks haven’t changed anything – yet. Is this an already done deal or perhaps a vanity project? I ask him.

Modest gain

“The Government thinks it will facilitate commerce. The reduction in journey time from London to Birmingham will be about 21 minutes, which I think is a very modest gain… I have seen the outline business case and I myself don’t find it at all persuasive, I think it’s very optimistic and pie-in-the-sky,” he says.

When I point out the Marylebone to Birmingham line is already being upgraded and journey times due to be slashed, John nods and says: “It’s possible to do this incrementally, without a massive great new line. You could, for example, extend the West Coast main line… The Government seems to think it’s got to go for this super-duper massive new project based on what I consider to be a highly speculative and unconvincing business case. More disturbingly still, Ministers and Secretaries of State have started to say recently, it’s not just about the business case it’s about making a judgement in the national interest.”

There’s a light-hearted moment when we consider what would happen if great crested newts were found along the route, but it’s clear John takes his constituency problems very seriously despite the new calls on his time.
“I still get here a lot,” says John. “I’m not here every single Friday but I am here pretty much every weekend.”

There’s something about Sally

John’s role as Speaker and the stately apartments that come with it keep him in Westminster more these days, he says. And with a politically active wife – Sally’s a vociferous, some might say strident, Labour supporter – and three small children, the eldest of whom is in a London school, home life is also more city-centric. I ask how he and Sally manage to juggle it all. The answer is teamwork and mutual respect.

“She’s more London-based and though the schools here [in Buckinghamshire] are excellent Oliver is pretty settled where he is. I don’t feel her political aspirations [she hopes to become a Labour MP] are going to be a great problem,” says John, citing Sir Nicholas Winterton and his wife Ann as an example of a two-MP family [though I might add they both represented the same party]. John has to be apolitical as Speaker but admits he gets letters from Tory supporters suggesting he should keep Sally’s outspoken views in check.
“My answer is unequivocal.

We’re living in 2010 – Sally is my wife, but she’s not my chattel, she’s not owned by me and not obliged to do as I say.

“She’s definitely not told what to do. There’s no job called ‘The Speaker’s Wife’, she doesn’t have a Parliamentary office. Yes she lives in the Speaker’s House with me – but we are not one person. She’s entitled to her own views – but I do believe that we face the world together.”

Off the record John reveals some of the more extreme and personal content of the letters and seems more disappointed than shocked at the vitriol.
What’s happened to the notion of a meritocracy?
“There’s a certain body of people who are determined to be as critical as possible,” says John, adding that he’s put up with comments about his background ever since he entered Parliament in 1997. He is happy to receive constructive criticism and advice, but not opposition to him for its own sake.

I’m not so arrogant as to believe I know everything. You can always benefit from sensible suggestions.

“I’m very happy, I enjoy life, I think it’s a huge privilege to do what I’m doing. I have a lovely wife and lovely children. I’d like to do this for as long as I reasonably can.”
He particularly likes reading biography and political memoirs, and found some passages from Tony Blair’s book, A Journey, resonant. Sally has introduced him to the award-winning novels of Sarah Waters and he’s a fan of Sebastian Faulks’s writing.

A lifelong interest

John’s other love is tennis – he was England’s number one ranked junior while his sister, Alison, was an accomplished synchronised swimmer – their sporting prowess gained because their mother wanted them to have a lifelong interest.
“I was never good enough to be a professional,” he says, modestly, admitting his job and family life leave him with little time to play tennis nowadays. Doubles, he says, gives you a good insight into people’s characters.

“I played with David Cameron for a while,” he says. “He’s an extremely good player – he’s a left-hander and while he’s very hard on himself, he’s very supportive of his partner.”
He still squeezes out time to watch coverage of Grand Slam tournaments, particularly matches involving Roger Federer, whom he considers the sport’s best player and ambassador.

Our interview over, I leave Buckingham’s darkening streets. Fair play learnt on the tennis court makes John Bercow an ideal Speaker – it’s not unlike the role of a umpire. But if he chose to descend from his elevated seat to return to the play, who I wonder, would relish being on the wrong side of the net?

Facts and stats about the Speaker

  • John Bercow was born in 1963 and went to Finchley Manorhill School.
  • He graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in Government from the University of Essex.
  • He married Sally in December 2002 and they have three children, Oliver, Freddie and Jemima.
  • Besides playing tennis John is also a qualified coach.
  • John was elected MP for Buckingham in May 1997 and has served as Front Bench Spokesman for Education & Employment and Home Affairs. He has also held the posts of Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Shadow Minister for Work & Pensions and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.
  • He serves or has served on a number of cross party Parliamentary groups, review committees and select committees.
  • John Bercow was elected as the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons on June 22, 2009.

John Bercow Speaker 2010
John Bercow without his golden robes at the House of Commons

This article first appeared in the March 2011 edition of Berkshire & Buckinghamshire Life.

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