It has often struck me that a large proportion of our senior politicians were psychologically wounded when young and seek out the political stage in the hope of gaining the approbation denied to them as children. In few is this as obvious as in the case of the former Speaker. This is memoir as both therapy and revenge. Vengeance on all those who have crossed him during a contentious career. Therapy by trumpeting to the world that “Crater Face” defied those bullying classmates by rising to occupy parliament’s high chair for a decade.
For some he will always be a hero. To others he seems to have achieved nothing beyond helping to induce the collective nervous breakdown at the end of the last Parliament, which became incapable of agreeing on anything. Whichever judgement you make, no one will ever consider Bercow a master of English prose. As I finished each chapter, the words of Dogberry echoed in my ears: “Remember that I am an ass … Oh, that I had been writ down an ass”. Well, frankly, he has been.
All one can hope for is that Bercow continues to be a voice in UK political life. His autobiography presents a powerful prospectus for a House of Commons that is modern and relevant and checks the aggressive use of executive power. If the bullying allegations finally come to naught, there should be no question of not giving him a seat in the House of Lords, from where he can pursue this cause.
The memoir could have done with more ruthless editing. In one section Bercow devotes pages to critiquing the careers of other MPs, including an inexplicable two pages on the “staggeringly, mind-blowingly” boring former health secretary Andrew Lansley. Perhaps Bercow’s fixation with the careers of other politicians is a reflection of the fact that ultimately he was only the referee — not a principal player — in the Brexit drama. This instant history lacks the perspective of time, but in describing pitched battles at Westminster, it could now be describing another age.
That lack of reflection – and an unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to take others with him on his intellectual journey – made him more enemies than his record deserved as Speaker, and makes for an unsatisfying memoir of his time in office too.
He claims that he is ‘distinctly old-fashioned’ and didn’t even own a mobile phone when he was elected. He wrote his book by hand and Sally typed it. But he was very much a modernising Speaker, who managed to speed up PM’s Questions, allowed many more Urgent Questions, encouraged diversity and introduced a nursery and an outreach and education programme. As Speaker, he was meant to spend a minimum of three hours in the Chair, but he often stayed much longer than that — ten hours a day during some of the Brexit debates — sustained by cashew nuts and water. He enjoyed the fame the Brexit debates brought him — people often ask him for selfies or shout ‘Order, Order’ when they see him in the street. Sally and their three children are also apt to shout ‘Order!’ when he tells them to tidy up.
Theresa May is “as wooden as your average coffee table”. Of Michael Howard he writes: “Some people are cold. Some people are oily. His peculiar distinction was to combine coldness and oiliness in equal measure.” William Hague is “a cold fish… an impersonal, mechanical hack… a weirdo”. Bercow worked for all these figures in a junior capacity while the Tories were in opposition: their inability to recognise his unique talents gets its payback in his autobiography, Unspeakable.
Having read this book, I’m afraid it is all too easy to believe that Bercow’s choleric and vindictive conduct in the chair carried on behind the scenes. His good-humoured, quietly efficient successor, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has just asked for anyone bullied by Bercow to come forward. There may be quite a queue. Ever delighted with himself, Bercow concludes: “In over a decade in the chair it was never any part of my role to serve as a nodding donkey or quiescent lickspittle of the executive branch of our political system.” Oh, do shut up, you preposterous little man. Napoleon was exiled to Elba. Where should we send John Bercow and his Napoleon complex – Rockall, Malin, the Hebrides? As far away as possible, please, and take your dreadful book with you.
The early years are easiest to read. We hear briefly of his teenage promise as a tennis player. He has so often mentioned his love for tennis that one expected him to convey the thrill of the forehand smash, the delight in the crafty lob and even perhaps Joan Hunterish frissons of the mixed doubles; yet it is joylessly done. He was merely interested in winning. He writes clinically about his youthful acne, which sounds to have been horrible, but the usual fumblings and discoveries of adolescent life are absent. Instead we are swept on to his career as a university politician and then as a prospective Conservative Party parliamentary candidate in Motherwell South and Bristol South before he landed the safe seat of Buckingham in 1997.