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The narcissism of John Bercow The preening former speaker would do anything to become a Lord

John Bercow, amateur tennis player (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

John Bercow, amateur tennis player (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)


June 24, 2021   4 mins

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.

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.


Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.

DouglasKMurray

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Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

Ah, this made me laugh. What a ridiculous man Bercow is, though I’m slightly surprised he didn’t mention his Bronze Swimming Certificate and that he passed his Cycling Proficiency Test on only his second attempt.

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

You forgot to mention his position of Chairman, for life, of the John Bercow appreciation society. Membership, one.

Fennie Strange
Fennie Strange
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

Brilliant! Sharon it’s comments like this that make me really really hope you change your mind about leaving UnHerd.

Rocky Rhode
Rocky Rhode
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

And his exhaustive acting career: Time Bandits, Willow, The Hobbit, Snow White et al.

Ludo Roessen
Ludo Roessen
2 years ago

But only John Bercow, in the full flight of his seriousness, would imagine that what the Lords needs is an amateur tennis coach.”
Your pen is mightier than the sword and I love it!
That sentence will keep me smiling all day….

Stuart Rose
Stuart Rose
2 years ago
Reply to  Ludo Roessen

Ludo, i read that twice myself.

Ludo Roessen
Ludo Roessen
2 years ago
Reply to  Stuart Rose

😉

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

No-one does a skilful and funny takedown better than Douglas Murray and this was as ever, a joy to read.
I wish we had someone of his calibre here in South Africa, but it would be wasted – like shooting fish in a barrel, despite the rich pickings.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

I don’t understand why there is so much mockery of Bercow qualifying as a tennis coach. That is an astonishing achievement for a man who can’t see over the net.

Last edited 2 years ago by Christopher Barclay
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

You are a very bad man 🙂

ian.walker12
ian.walker12
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Indeed. He’s perfectly able to see through the holes in the net.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

Thank you, Mr Murray, for yet again putting into eloquent words the feelings of your readers.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

Love the acid wit of this piece!

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

I hope John Bercow reads this!

Iain Scott Shore
Iain Scott Shore
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

He won’t! A) too scared b) he will never knowingly consider anything critical of himself.

Vibeke Lawrie
Vibeke Lawrie
2 years ago

How can this counry sink so that have both John Bercow and the Duke of Sussex at the ssme time?

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
2 years ago

“several times his own height”. Love it. Now that’s what I call social climbing!

Stuart Rose
Stuart Rose
2 years ago
Reply to  Howard Gleave

Another great line of Douglas’s. If you want to see just when and how hyperbole can deal a needed blow, this is it.

James Hammett
James Hammett
2 years ago

“several times his height” XD

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

JB – The poor man’s Warwick Davies

Roger le Clercq
Roger le Clercq
2 years ago

He should have his own quiz show. Oh dear .. been there, done that

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Excellent. So funny and so true. Thank you

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

Labour’s acceptance of this odious little creep shows that they have lost interest forever in appealing to the traditional voter base which remains their only hope of ever getting elected again.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

He did propose the lynching of a black man ( Nelson Mandella) so he’s got more common with Labour than say, well, Nelson Mandella.

Rob Keeley
Rob Keeley
2 years ago

Like a modern day Jeffrey Archer without the charm – or the talent.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago

The book made my skin crawl, which is very rare. He is even more otiose and self- regarding than the authors of “The Third Man” (The autobiography, not Graham Greene’s book) and Mein Kampf. Small wonder he was still singing “Hang Nelson Mandella” in his 20s. He is a sign of the times – is there no standard anymore? He still wants to be something he’s not, and has learned no lessons whatever from his life.

Vibeke Lawrie
Vibeke Lawrie
2 years ago

ï»ż

Diane Tasker
Diane Tasker
2 years ago

Most entertaining – a very ‘small’ man indeed!

rosie.brocklehurst
rosie.brocklehurst
2 years ago

Love Bercow. Stood up for Parliamentary democracy. What a vituperative disingenuous piece of nonsense from Murray.

Last edited 2 years ago by rosie.brocklehurst
Charles Lawton
Charles Lawton
2 years ago

John Bercow is tedious like so many politicians, just as this rather silly article is.

Stuart Y
Stuart Y
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Lawton

Bet your fun

Iain Scott Shore
Iain Scott Shore
2 years ago
Reply to  Stuart Y

HUGE fun!!!!

Ron Bo
Ron Bo
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Lawton

Agreed.Personal attacks on a fine upstanding man like my mate John are unnecessary 🙂