Last year I had the pleasure of reading John Bercow’s memoirs, the appropriately titled Unspeakable. It is, to be fair to the former House of Commons Speaker, a remarkable book, if only for the things it revealed about him; his vindictiveness, his spite, his preening vanity and his curious tendency to tell the truth only when left with no other option. Indeed, so ghastly was his self-portrait that it left me wondering: how long until he tries to force his way back?
Suffice it to say, then, that Bercow’s brief re-emergence into public view this week hardly came as a surprise. It all started on Sunday, when he told the Observer that he had joined the Labour Party. The story made the newspaper’s front page, even though his transfer of allegiance was hardly a surprise. Personally, I had expected it to happen 14 years ago, in June 2007.
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That was when the news broke that a Conservative MP had been so enamoured and enthused by the prospect of Gordon Brown’s move from Number 11 to Number 10 Downing Street that he had chosen to cross the floor of the House.
The minute I heard the news I assumed it must be the then MP for Buckingham, John Bercow — a man who had already adopted the most ingratiating manner imaginable whenever he spoke across the Commons floor from the government of Tony Blair. He oozed and schmoozed and exuded a pseudo-charm devoid of wit and without much discernible purpose.
On that occasion, however, the Conservative MP who crossed the floor was Quentin Davies. John Bercow had missed his chance. Or so it seemed.
Why would a former member of the Monday Club give it all up to join a beleaguered Labour Party? The most plausible reason is, as so often, a personal one.
In 2002 Bercow married a Labour Party activist called Sally, and it is clear from his memoirs that it was a transformative match. The unattractive, dwarfish Bercow could not believe his luck at bagging a tall, leggy blonde several times his height. He spent the ensuing period not just counting his luck but trying to make sure that he continued to dazzle her, principally by adapting his politics to fit hers: a strategy that turned out to be largely unsuccessful.
In any case, during his time as Speaker, Bercow’s political sympathies were clear. The famous side-eye that David Cameron frequently gave him was well-earned, as was the amused acceptance of his charms by successive Labour front-benchers who accepted the fealty and fawning of the man in the speaker’s chair with much the same good humour as an organ-grinder regarding his monkey.
But now the monkey in question has been caught in a lie. While giving an interview on Sunday to Sky News, Bercow presented his decision to join Labour as though it were solely a question of principle. “The real issue”, he insisted, “is who has the vision of a more equitable society, who thirsts to deliver social mobility, who wants to better the lot of people less fortunate? On that, Keir Starmer is vastly preferable to Boris Johnson.”
It was classic Bercow, of course. Who honestly uses the word “thirsts” in relation to “social mobility”? The excellent Trevor Phillips, who was interviewing him, wasn’t convinced. Was this not all about something else entirely? Was his decision to switch to Labour simply a calculation to get around the Conservative Party’s clear refusal to put him in the House of Lords by throwing in his lot with Labour?
Bercow, however, was in high dudgeon at such a low motive being attributed to him.
“I’ve had absolutely no discussion whatsoever, either with Keir Starmer or any other member of the Labour leadership about that matter. There has been no barter, no trade, no deal whatsoever. And if I may very politely say so, and I do, the people who make what they think is that potent and coruscating criticism of me are operating according to their own rather low standards.”
Again, it was classic Bercow: grandiose, self-sanitising, pompous and untrue — as we were to discover not more than 24 hours later, when The Times published a letter which Bercow had written to Jeremy Corbyn while he was still Labour leader. It proved to be just one part of the former Speaker’s campaign to lobby Corbyn, having been preceded by a number of secret meetings with the Labour leader in the aftermath of the 2019 election.
It might have been possible for Bercow to present the Times emails as forgeries, were it not for their all-too-predictable style. For example, in his explanation for his suitability for the Upper House, Bercow boasted that he had held “no fewer than five shadow ministerial roles”. It was typical Bercow self-praise. All of these roles were performed in remarkably quick succession, during a tumultuous, talent-short period of Conservative opposition. And all were performed by Bercow without any distinction.
Then came the clincher — the absolute proof that this was not the creation of a Russian forgery operation or the like. Bercow, in his exhaustive account of his political career, went on to explain that not only had he once served as deputy leader of the Tory group on Lambeth council, but he is “a qualified lawn tennis coach”. Anyone who has read Unspeakable — and I appreciate that we are few — will immediately hear the clear ring of truth in this last boast.
Why should that preclude him from the House of Lords? It is true, of course, that the Upper Chamber contains some remarkably unimpressive figures. But only John Bercow, in the full flight of his seriousness, would imagine that what the Lords needs is an amateur tennis coach. No foreign agent could have inserted this detail. No critic of the former Speaker within the Conservative or Labour parties could have fabricated it. It is John Bercow through and through. A year later, he remains as unspeakable as ever.
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