John Bercow: 10 colourful years as Speaker of the Commons

He has survived attempts to remove him from the chair, revelations about his expenses and allegations of bullying.

Press Association
Last updated: 31 October 2019 - 8.20am

John Bercow has been no stranger to the limelight in more than 10 years in the Speaker’s chair.

The one-time Conservative MP for Buckingham, with a high-profile Labour-supporting wife, has made a catalogue of unconventional comments since he took over the impartial role from Michael Martin.

He has survived attempts to remove him from the chair, including from former colleagues in the Tory party, revelations about his expenses and allegations of bullying, which he denied.

But it will perhaps be his interventions in the Brexit crisis, and the relish with which he seemed to make them, for which he will be best remembered.

Regular Parliament watchers may or may not miss his inimitable style, such as his bellowing shouts of “order” and “division, clear the lobby”, but those quirks are what brought him international attention when the eyes of the world became fixed on the Commons throughout 2019.

As the Brexit debate raged and senior opposition figures played every trick in the parliamentary book to prevent the governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson from pursuing their preferred policies, Mr Bercow drew the ire of hardline Eurosceptics for perceived bias.

After he allowed an amendment by Tory rebel Dominic Grieve to be voted on in January, he was labelled “Speaker of the Devil” by one newspaper, while the Daily Mail called him an “egotistical preening popinjay (who) has shamelessly put his anti-Brexit bias before the national interest – and is a disgrace to his office”.

He voted Remain, discussing it candidly with a group of students, but in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica denied this meant he had lost his impartiality.

“If I’m biased, I’m biased in favour of Parliament. Parliament being heard. Parliament having a right to speak. Parliament having time. Parliament being respected by the government of the day and indeed by the opposition,” he said.

Andrea Leadsom
He had a fractious relationship with former Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom (Handout/PA)

Since being elected as the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons in June 2009, he has delivered many caustic put-downs, earning him both loathing and appreciative laughter from MPs.

He had a fractious relationship with former Commons Leader, and now Business Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, after he was accused of calling her a “stupid woman”.

His remarks from the chair include telling Labour’s Paula Sherriff (Dewsbury) she would have received an anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) if her rowdy behaviour had taken place outside the Commons.

He made the joke in January 2017 as he sought to quieten the chamber to allow then prime minister Mrs May to respond to a question.

Later that month he was caught on microphone warning cabinet minister Sir Michael Fallon it would be “stupid” to pick a fight with a senior MP.

He made the unguarded comment after the then defence secretary had been grilled about reports that a Trident ballistic missile veered off course during a test firing.

Mr Bercow has suggested yoga to several MPs, including Labour’s Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) and Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley), while calling for calm during heated debates.

He admonished MPs for repeatedly asking for a tea break or whether they could use the toilet during a long-running Brexit debate.

His decision to strip parliamentary officials of their traditional wigs in 2017 was met with disapproval from a number of MPs.

In the last few years he has faced scrutiny of his expenses. In November 2015 it was revealed he had spent almost £20,000 of taxpayers’ money to fly to a conference in Japan with an aide.

In February 2016 a PA freedom of information request revealed that he spent thousands of pounds wining and dining fellow MPs, plus almost £2,000 on a dinner with his Australian counterpart and hundreds of pounds to tune the grand piano in his apartments.

His office argued that the overall expenditure of the Speaker’s Office had fallen during his tenure, from £626,029 in 2009/10 to £504,737 in 2015/16.

Born on January 19 1963, the son of a Jewish taxi driver, Mr Bercow went to school in Margaret Thatcher’s Finchley constituency and first got involved as politics as a teenager.

He attended Essex University, where he gained a reputation as something of a firebrand, and became a member of the hardline Tory Monday Club, notorious for its “hang Nelson Mandela” slogans, joining its Immigration and Repatriation Committee.

At the age of 20 he left the pressure group, saying some of its members’ views about immigration were “unpalatable”.

After a short spell at Hambros Bank, Mr Bercow embarked on a career as a lobbyist, serving as a councillor in Lambeth, south London, at the same time.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

At the 1992 general election he stood unsuccessfully against Labour’s Dawn Primarolo in Bristol South.

Three years later he went into politics full-time, becoming special adviser to chief secretary to the treasury Jonathan Aitken until his resignation, and then to heritage secretary Virginia Bottomley.

Mr Bercow finally secured a berth in the safe seat of Buckingham, and, despite Labour’s landslide victory, entered Parliament at the 1997 general election.

He was made shadow chief secretary when Iain Duncan Smith became Tory leader in 2001 before quitting the Conservative front bench in November 2002.

He became Speaker following Labour MP Mr Martin’s resignation and was re-elected twice, despite angering former Tory colleagues with his behaviour in the chair.

Nadine Dorries, his constituency near neighbour, was one of a handful of MPs who tried to have him removed in 2010. He was re-elected in 2015.

John Bercow and his wife Sally at Westminster Abbey for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton
John Bercow and his wife Sally at Westminster Abbey for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton (Steve Parsons/PA)

Mr Bercow married Sally Illman in 2002 and they have three children together.

The marriage has been a source of attention throughout his tenure, with his wife becoming a household name after posing for a photoshoot in Speaker’s House draped in a sheet, and appearing on Celebrity Big Brother.

In 2015 she admitted she had been a “terrible wife” amid reports of an affair with her husband’s cousin.

Attention will now turn to what Mr Bercow will do next, with speculation focused on him becoming a reality TV star.

Bookmaker Coral have him at 4/5 to be a contestant on I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! and 10/1 to go on and win it.

There is also speculation that he will become an after-dinner speaker, with Ladbrokes offering odds of 1/10 on that career move taking place in the next 12 months.

William Hill is offering odds of 1/1 that Mr Bercow will have a number one selling book before the end of 2020, 20/1 that he will be the next Prime Minister, and 100/1 that he will be the next mayor of London.

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