John Bercow addressed a packed crowd at the Edinburgh festival yesterday. He was gently quizzed by Susan Morrison who hailed him as ‘a grown-up in charge of the nursery’ at Parliament. She asked why he decided to swap the Speaker’s ‘full wig, stockings and buckled shoes’ for a business suit and a plain academic gown. ‘Out of date and passe’, said Bercow. He claimed that ‘young people’ had expressed keen support for his ‘approachable’ new costume.
The togs may be modern but Bercow’s language belongs to the 18th century. ‘Nay’ is a favourite. ‘The Speaker is asked, nay, instructed to assume the chair.’ He calls debates ‘contestations’. He talks of rumours ‘being bruited.’ He criticised the reluctance of MPs to alter conventions by saying, ‘if t’were ever thus, manifestly nothing would change.’
His Speakership spans the tenure of four prime ministers. Did he have any tittle-tattle to share? He didn’t mention Boris. Treading warily, perhaps. And he kept schtum about Theresa May as well. His relations with Gordon Brown, he said, were always cordial and he told an innocuous tale about David Cameron berating him for allowing PMQs to over-run by five minutes.
‘Don’t you know I have a plane to catch?’ Cameron said, after the session ended late.
‘With respect, prime minister, it is your own plane. And privately I thought to myself, “What are you moaning about, man?”’
His toadying to the Scottish crowd was blatant and persistent. ‘A distinguished and august audience,’ he called them.
‘I can tell from the learned expressions on your countenances that you devour the 24th edition of Erskine May for breakfast.’
He claimed the best debater he had ever seen was Robin Cook, a Scot. ‘Sheer intellectual ferocity.’ The finest Tory parliamentarian? Another Scot, Malcolm Rifkind. He called the SNP in Westminster, ‘very disciplined, very keen chamber-attenders. They turn up. They table motions and amendments.’ And he coined a new term to describe their esprit de corps. ‘They are a really solidaristic army.’ Solidaristic. He said that. And he evoked the character of Andy Murray as if the tennis star were a long-dead Highland rebel. ‘The name “Andy Murray” is a constant reminder of triumph, of guts, of focus, and of never-say-die.’
The audience loved it. Edinburgh warms to politicians with Remainer sympathies. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, got a hero’s welcome here last week.
Bercow reserved special praise for his favourite parliamentarian of all time: John Bercow. His candidacy for the speakership, he said, had been opposed by Nadine Dorries who feared he might be partisan. But she approached him in the lobby after he’d been in the job for a few weeks.
‘Mr Speaker!’ she gushed. ‘You are so fair!’
Other MPs had hailed his impartiality, we were told. But he admitted that when selecting MPs at PMQs he can be prejudiced.
‘I’m looking to call women – who are better behaved than men.’ Then he plucked a question out of mid-air. ‘Does this mean I can satisfy everyone? Come, come, come, ladies and gentlemen, what are these pigs I see flying before me?’
Bercow’s gift for rhetoric is seriously marred by his Proustian tendencies. He just goes on and on. A question about brevity took him three minutes to answer. At the end, when the debate passed to the floor, he answered four questions in 11 minutes.
He made much of his ‘bias towards democracy, debate, scrutiny and Parliament’ but he forgets that Parliament is biased against the people. He finished by turning up the dial to ‘Dennis Skinner’ level. ‘Parliament must have its way,’ he yelled. ‘And if there is any attempt to circumvent, to bypass, or God forbid, to close down parliament, I will fight – with every breath in my body – to stop it. Parliament will be heard.’
Amid loud whoops and cheers, I scooted towards the exit to write this piece.
‘I have no plans to retire!’ he was shouting as I left the venue. Did I miss the moment when they gave him the freedom of the city? Lord knows, they were in the mood.