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Coffee House

John Bercow reinvents being Speaker of the House of Commons

9 August 2013

4:39 PM

9 August 2013

4:39 PM

If only he’d read the job description a little bit more closely, we might have avoided all these rows. Unfortunately for John Bercow, the man who loves the sound of his own voice more than anything else, the role of Speaker really doesn’t do what it says on the tin. Traditionally, the Speaker has taken a definite back seat, bellowing the odd ‘order, order’ in the Commons but otherwise maintaining a rather reticent and impartial position.

Judging by Bercow’s behaviour over the past few months, it would seem that he hasn’t got the memo. This summer alone, he’s travelled to Romania, Burma and New Zealand, observing wryly at his final destination that, ‘There must be some ministers in my country who would find the prospect of my being relocated the better part of 12,000 miles away rather enticing.’

Nor is Bercow standing in for the Royal Family while they coo over their new baby – he doesn’t just turn up and shake hands. Instead, he’s been using the trips to speak out and make political points, a tactic that’s been received by some Tory MPs with as much warmth as Lord McAlpine turning on his computer to find a message on Twitter from Sally Bercow.

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First up, in Bucharest, Bercow used his supposedly neutral position to gain a policy platform for his views on border control. The man who in his youth could be found calling for the repatriation of immigrants and breaking bread with Gregory Lauder-Frost (now vice-president of the Traditional Britain group that’s plunged Jacob Rees-Mogg into hot water in recent days), told the audience that Eastern European immigrants showed more ‘aptitude and commitment’ than some British workers. I wonder, who could this grandson of Romanian immigrants possibly have had in mind?

His next stop in Yangon saw a return to Burma, a country in which he’s long held a passionate interest. Last time he visited, he was smuggled over the border, but, on this occasion, in the wake of the country’s tentative moves towards democracy, he was able to come and go through the usual diplomatic channels. While he was hardly likely to get much grief for meeting the leader of Burma’s democratic movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, it was still interesting that the Speaker was acting more like a jet-setting statesman than an arbiter of obscure points of parliamentary procedure.

Now most recently, the trip to New Zealand has reopened old wounds with his former Conservative Party colleagues. By calling for less government control over the parliamentary timetable, Bercow has once again taken up the mantle of backbenchers’ rights, a cause which has won over a lot of his critics in the Commons. However, it’s unlikely to do anything to heal his rift with David Cameron, which started when Bercow criticised him for representing ‘Eton, hunting, shooting and lunch at White’s’ – a description which so angered the Prime Minister that friends told me he ‘spits blood’ when he says Bercow’s name.

Speaking has always been in Bercow’s DNA. As a young Tory activist, he was never happier than when taking on a hostile crowd – even though his nerves occasionally got the better of him, causing him to have to pop round the back for a quick vomit before taking the stage. As Speaker he is isolated from a lot of the political rough and tumble that he loves – there is no place for him at the party conferences or on Question Time. Bercow’s response to this political solitude shows just how bullish he is. He could have let the role define him, but, as we await the statesman’s long flight home from the other side of the world, it is clear that he intends to shape it in his own image.

Bobby Friedman is the author of Bercow, Mr Speaker: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party.

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