To understand the forces at work in a divided kingdom, the year 1642 is perhaps the only place to begin.
A furious King Charles I, with 400 armed men at his back, arrived in the House of Commons to arrest five Members of Parliament accused of high treason. The King demanded of Speaker Lenthall, whether any of the five were in the House, whether he saw them, and where they were.
A trembling Lenthall, kneeling before the monarch said: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”
Lenthall’s refusal – his defence of Parliament against the wishes of the executive – led the king to dissolve the Commons and started the English Civil War. No monarch has ever entered the Commons chamber again.
Today, John Bercow is Speaker of the House. And, once again, there is a struggle for sovereignty in the UK, an argument that pits the executive against Parliament, between the ‘do or die’ government of Boris Johnson and the House of Commons. Bercow, at 5ft 6ins, is the small man with the stentorian tone standing in the way.
When I come to meet Bercow in the magnificent Corner Room in the Speaker’s House, I pass the picture of Speaker Lenthall on the stairway.
It was early August, only days into the new Johnson era, but not too early for the atmosphere in Westminster to have thickened already with talk of parliament being shut down, shoved aside, to enable a rush to Brexit.
Yesterday, the Government announced plans to suspend parliament for more than a month, narrowing the window for any parliamentary opposition to the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan.
The constitutional crisis triggered by Brexit has entered its fifth act: it pits Johnson against Bercow.
When I asked Bercow if the House could stop a No Deal, he replies that it could, and adds: “Yes, it can have its say. It will decide what it wants. The idea that parliament would be evacuated from the centre stage of Brexit decision making is unimaginable, it is inconceivable and it simply is not going to happen.”
In a statement from his family holiday yesterday, he described the Government’s move as “a constitutional outrage” and an offence against the democratic process: “However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country. At this time, one of the most challenging periods in our nation’s history, it is vital that our elected Parliament has its say. After all, we live in a parliamentary democracy.”
Like the Speaker’s Office, after the government’s bid to suspend parliament, I find myself reaching for precedent, finding none, and trying to envisage the next steps. Can MPs opposed to No Deal devise a strategy in the next two weeks to thwart it? Has Johnson deliberately chosen to provoke the Commons into a No Confidence vote, one he is willing to lose to justify a snap General Election that pits him as the champion of the people fighting a parliament that’s blocking its will on Brexit? Or is the mother of parliaments really to be sidelined on the eve of modern Britain’s most significant decision in peacetime?
Over the course of my conversation with Bercow – and other interviews conducted with others to offer a profile of his personality and political journey – his attitudes to Brexit, to the Conservative and Labour parties, to David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson are all laid bare. But most of all the Speaker leaves you in no doubt that he will not allow Parliament to be silenced.
Without mentioning Johnson’s chief strategist Dominic Cummings he says that if there are “naysayers contending there is nothing MPs can do, they are entitled to their opinion, but they suffer from the very grave disadvantage of being wrong”.
Insisting that he is not arguing for or against any government position he adds: “All I am saying is there is an opportunity for MPs to pronounce on this matter in a meaningful way before October 31 if they are so minded.”
His words will delight MPs fighting against a hard Brexit and looking to the procedures of the Commons to help them. They will enrage Brexiteers who believe that Bercow, a self-confessed Remainer, has behaved less than impartially so far in this saga.
It is important to say Bercow gets on well with Johnson – they have even played tennis together.
Bercow has moved during his political life from a position far to the right of Johnson, to that of a centrist who finds himself opposing a right wing conservative government.
Elected as a Tory MP aged 34, on the day in 1997 when Tony Blair’s New Labour swept the Conservative government from power, he has served as Speaker since 2009.
Bercow joined the Conservatives after a chat with Margaret Thatcher on the eve of the 1979 election and was “alerted” to Enoch Powell by his anti-immigration father, Charles. Despite this he joined the far-right Monday Club, a decision he now calls the biggest mistake of his political life.
He gradually moved leftwards, a path previously followed by his flamboyant wife Sally, who once posed in a bedsheet with Parliament in the background. He has upset successive Tory leaders, including his former tennis partner David Cameron, who reportedly called him a “little shit”.
To understand how he made what he acknowledges is a “striking” political journey, we must understand his family, the formative influence of Margaret Thatcher, and later, of his own wife. Crucial, too, was the close-up view he gained of the Conservatives’ obsession with Europe during the party’s wilderness years of opposition under Michael Howard, who followed William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith as leader.
His father was a small businessman, owning a third of a car sales business called Bercow Motors (Bercow’s uncle Ralph owning the rest). His father, Bercow says, was an “armchair politician, with an old-fashioned, mannered speaking style which I have inherited”. Bercow is now famous for his grandiloquent calls to order, and never had a public speaking lesson because he never needed one. “Dad tended to be long-winded. I have inherited his prolixity.”
What got him into politics? “The quick answer is Winter of Discontent, streets unswept, sick people untreated, dead people unburied. I thought that this was no way to run a country.”
The teachers at his modest north London school, a comprehensive in Finchley, were either supporters of the Callaghan Labour government of the 1970s or left-wing Bennite critics of it; none, as far as he could tell, were Conservatives. “I think I was slightly provoked by that.”
But something else happened just before the 1979 election won by Margaret Thatcher. He saw her speak at a nearby school just before polling day. He recalls it vividly.
“I must have been moderately pushy. I found a way to get to the front at the end of the meeting. I was 16. It was her last stump speech in the constituency before polling day. I told her how inspired I was by her speech to which she offered the rejoinder: ‘Mr Bercow – are you a member of the Young Conservatives?’ I said, ‘Well no, but I have come to hear you and I have been inspired.’
“‘But you most assuredly should be,’ she said. I have always remembered this. ‘Do you know Roy Langstone?’ ‘I’m afraid not.’ ‘He is my agent for the Finchley and Friern Barnet Conservatives. A first class man. 221 Ballards Lane. Mr Bercow, you must go there, by arrangement, to see him. He will see you all right.’
“I did not follow her instructions until some months later. I went and got involved as a member of Hendon north. Then I joined Finchley Young Conservatives and became progressively more involved. I was inspired by her. I have always admired her. I continue to admire her to this day, although she is not the heroine for me she was then.”
Bercow says his family were not “totally impoverished”, but not comfortably well off either. “My father was, on the whole, a good dad, but not a good business person. He was honest to a fault. He was of a rather nervous disposition. He could be tough minded but if he did not sell a car for three days he behaved as if we would be out on the street.
“Uncle Ralph had a better business instinct. Sadly he got cancer and died and dad was left to run the business on his own and he struggled. The oil crisis did not help. The business was damaged and eventually he had to accept defeat. He sold it or offloaded it to be exact. He suffered from ill health and drove a mini-cab until he had to stop work about four or five years before he died.
Bercow’s mother Brenda was keen that he and his sister Alison should have a hobby, something that her own tough background in Yorkshire had denied her. Alison became a synchronised swimmer and swam for Britain in the late 70s. Bercow took weekly tennis lessons from the Finchley club pro, Dudley Georgeson. He started playing in tournaments and would spend whole summers on court, becoming Middlesex Under 12 and Under 14 champion. He secured some big scalps but remembers getting beaten by Andrew Castle, a former UK number one. Bercow has written a book about male tennis champions and his favourite remains Roger Federer.
The Speaker suggests that in some ways his father was a bad influence. “He was right-wing Tory and even though he was Jewish and must have been aware of the Cable Street battle, the Black Shirts, Oswald Mosely and all the rest, he was fundamentally very anti-New Commonwealth and Pakistani immigration and rather an admirer of Enoch Powell.
“He alerted me to Enoch and I started reading books by thinkers of the left and right in my late teens and at university. I did not have much patience for reading Marx. I was rather intrigued by Tony Benn, his sheer fluency and the power of [his] words and his capacity to transfix and mesmerise an audience. Dad had a low opinion of Benn but a high opinion of Powell.
“I read a number of his books, speeches and articles and I eventually heard him speak in public, and I was impressed. I joined the Monday Club, which is the biggest political mistake of my life and I remain enormously ashamed of it and will forever remain ashamed.”
Bercow claims to have atoned for this flirtation with the hardline anti-immigrant right. “I have no truck with those people or that mind-set now,” he says. “That was me at the time, I was 18, I slightly wonder whether my own relative physical feebleness was compensated for in my mind by an abrasive rightwing ideology. I don’t know, I may be rationalising post hoc. I was already a Conservative. I think if you are very young you can be quite attracted by the systematisation of thought – the idea there is a view on everything.”
Bercow’s best friend, in and outside Parliament, is Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP and hardline Brexiteer, one of the 28 so called Spartans who opposed Theresa May in all three of this year’s ‘meaningful votes’ on the EU withdrawal agreement.
He and Lewis met when Bercow, then on the far right and a student at Essex University, sought help from Lewis’s pressure group, the Coalition for Peace Through Security, on how to counter the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Bercow’s reputation as an orator was growing and they were both invited to speak at a Conservative student weekend conference.
It was on the train home that they decided to join forces to set up a not-for-profit organisation to train Conservative activists in campaigning and speaking. Lewis would specialise in the former and Bercow the latter. Their courses were staged first at the Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall and later at Conservative Central office. More than 600 activists, many of whom were to become MPs, passed through their doors.
This is a friendship that has survived Bercow’s shift leftwards, his support for the European Union, and the battering he has taken from many Conservative colleagues who want him out because of his stance on Brexit.
It was Lewis who first drew Bercow’s attention to Sally Illman, his colourful, controversial, Labour-supporting wife, with whom he has had three children, Oliver, Freddie and Jemima.
The two men had gone to another Conservative student event in Nottingham in 1989 and Lewis had spotted “this absolutely gorgeous girl with long flowing hair”. She was, he told his friend, the most beautiful woman at the conference. The three of them met up later at the university disco and got chatting. “It was blindingly obvious that she was more interested in John than me,” Lewis remembers. “I made my excuses and left.”
John’s meeting with Sally was the start of an on-off relationship that resulted in them getting married in the chapel off Westminster Hall in December 2002.
Lewis had by then helped Bercow get a parliamentary seat. It was his idea that Bercow should hire a helicopter to get him to two candidate interviews on the same night, in Surrey Heath and Buckingham. He was successful in the latter and still represents the seat.
Illman was a Tory activist who studied theology at Keble College, Oxford before moving into advertising and public relations. She moved swiftly across the political landscape to become, by 1997, a New Labour enthusiast. She has said things about the aphrodisiac qualities of life in the Palace of Westminster, about her heavy drinking in the past, and she has done things – like appearing on the reality show Celebrity Big Brother – that might have embarrassed or unnerved other husbands. Publicly at least they seem to have had little effect on hers.
His wife’s appearances in the headlines have usually been accompanied by a dignified silence from Bercow, although he was forced to comment earlier this year when MPs accused him of having a ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker in his car. The car was his wife’s, he told them, and surely they were not suggesting that a wife was the chattel of her husband. She has kept a lower profile in recent years. The family live in an apartment in Speaker’s House and she works at home, bringing up the children and doing charity work.
Lewis was Bercow’s best man and as far as he is concerned his friend is in a 21st century marriage. “It has been volatile at times but they have come through the flames. I have never been on anything other than good terms with Sally. She has her own political views and that’s fine. I tease him about his outlook on Europe because he used to berate me for not being interested enough in the subject when he was a hardline opponent of the EU. But their marriage is strong. They are still together and I will be very surprised if they don’t remain together.”
Bercow was happy to confirm Lewis’s account of his first encounter with his wife-to-be.
So I asked him whether his political journey was under way at the time they met.
“No. We met in September 1989. I was a staunch Thatcherite Conservative at the time. She was a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association and subsequently she left. By 1992 she had left Oxford and was voting Labour. Did I have much influence on her? No, I was still a robustly Thatcherite Conservative in ‘97 when elected. We were together and then apart and then came together again in January 2002 after a period apart. We got engaged in June 2002 and married on December 7 2002.”
So was she involved in his political shift?
“The answer is you are influenced a bit by the people you care about, members of your family and the person you love and go on to marry. Did Sally influence me to an extent? Yes, she did. But really the source of my journey lies in a number of other places.”
The particular issue on which he moved was in voting for equalising the age of consent for gay people. “I did not change my view on other matters immediately, including repeal of Section 28. No, it was one issue at a time. That is slightly me – cautious, one step at a time. But what I did was enough to provoke consternation among some right-wingers, including Norman Tebbit.”
What really changed Bercow’s politics was politics. The crushing defeat inflicted on his party by New Labour in 1997 did not move him, but the Tories’ failure to react did: “In 2001 I thought it highly significant and alarming that after four years of Blair government, we hardly did any better. We went up from 165 seats to 166.” The Conservatives, he argues, were still unpopular because so many people thought they had run down public services, while New Labour was prioritising schools and hospitals. The Tories were seen to have presided over a great divide between the haves and have nots, he says. “We had left inner cities seared by division and with a large visible suffering underclass. The Blair administration seemed determined to do something about that.”
He concedes he was not consistent in his shift, supporting the right-winger Iain Duncan Smith in 2001. “Obviously, I thought about Ken Clarke but I persuaded myself that much as I admired him he would bust the Conservative party in two. He might have greater leadership skills [but] that would only work if the party stayed together.”
He admits this was a rather muddled outlook. “By 2001, I was conscious of the Nasty Party image. I supported the public services, but I still had not escaped from my hardline Eurosceptic cage.”
I asked him when that happened. “That happened fairly gradually. When I became shadow International Development Secretary in November 2003, Michael Howard was preoccupied with repatriating the European aid budget, which I thought was misguided, obsessive and undeliverable. I started to think more about international affairs… I was struck by the interdependence of nation states in the modern world. Yes, you could have nation states, to a degree self-governing, but the reality is you are operating in a world in which you needed to forge alliances. A lot of international and global challenges required partnership and cooperation. The idea of a go-it-alone approach was facile.”
So if he was free from the constraints of the Speakership would he still be a Conservative? He replies with caution. “I don’t intend to go back into party politics I have no plan to do so. The general convention is that Speakers eschew politics thereafter.”
How would he vote? “Aaah, that is between me and my maker,” he says, chuckling.
Bercow originally suggested he would stand down in 2018 to allow a new Speaker time to be installed before a likely election in 2020. But Theresa May’s sudden calling of an election in 2017 put paid to that timetable and Bercow said earlier this year, in May, that he would not go while the Brexit debate still raged.
If Boris Johnson called an early election for sometime this year, would he go then? “I have no plans to stand down at the moment. You can interpret that as you wish. I’m not going to get into commenting on dates and future plans. If I had a plan to stand down I would announce it to the House first and you can draw your own conclusion from that. I have no plans to say anything to the House.”
Julian Lewis put it like this: “I think he genuinely feels it would look ridiculous to stand down in the middle of a potential constitutional crisis. My advice to anyone who wants to see the back of him is ‘for God’s sake make sure Brexit is achieved as soon as possible’ — but then you’d expect me to say that, wouldn’t you?”
And so to Brexit. I ask Bercow about his words at the Brookings Institution in Washington, where he said in May it would be unthinkable for the House not to have a say before a no-deal Brexit. Is it still possible for the House to have a meaningful say? Could the House stop a no-deal Brexit?
“Yes,” he replies, then he pauses. “Yes, it can have its say. It will decide what it wants.”
As for his own role in the process, he has given it some thought.
“The Speaker is and should be independent, unconnected with and owing no allegiance to any political party. I once revealed at Reading University I had voted in the referendum. I am a private citizen. I have a right to vote. [But] any fair-minded person who looks at my track record in the chair will see I have been conscientious to a fault in trying to facilitate the House. I have been scrupulous in seeking to facilitate back bench members to express their views, test their propositions and ensure their points are made.
“When the Conservative government’s position was to stay in the EU, I facilitated backbenchers who wanted a referendum and MPs who wanted to put urgent questions to the government about its policies and plans and I have always felt the Speaker has to be the champion of backbenchers, the champion of the legislature and the champion of the rights of minorities not to get their way but to have their say. It’s not for me to say what should happen.
“It is for the Speaker to say people must have the chance to put in an orderly way their points and, where it is orderly, to test the will of the House. I don’t want to comment on any other individual, be that person politician or non-politician. I would rather take my stand on the high ground of parliamentary principle.”
And how does he get on with Johnson?
“The honest answer is I get on well with him,” Bercow says. “I famously did not get on well with David Cameron. David and I were at our best when we played for the Commons and Lords tennis team. Cameron was a very good partner, McEnroe-like in excoriation of himself for his mistakes, but tolerant of mine. He was a good partner, always encouraging me. I enjoyed playing with him but we did not generally get on well.
“With Mrs May, I had good businesslike relations. She was always courteous to a fault. She was a very civil person to deal with. My relations with her were better than with David Cameron. I have always got on well with Boris. I rebuked him in the chamber over the way he had described a fellow MP. I thought he was at fault.” Other than that, he says, “I have got on perfectly well with him. I have not had a cross word with him and found him courteous and good humoured.”
Bercow insists he did not convert into the centrist of 2009 in order to attract the votes of Labour and left-of-centre MPs for his candidacy for Speaker. “I had become what I had become,” he says. “I had concluded as long ago as 2004 I was not cut out for front bench politics. I was not a good team player unless I was calling the shots. I thought I would enjoy backbench life.” He decided he would go for it if a vacancy arose for Speaker, but says the idea that everything should be viewed through that prism, that all his moves were designed to get him elected, is “juvenile delinquency”.
“I became the person I was. There is no artifice or contrivance about me. I am an all-out there person. I talk too much. I am an open book. I am the person I am. Some people like my style. Others don’t. Some people like the way I speak. Others don’t. Some people like the ties I wear. Others don’t. So be it. Some people approve of the way I have behaved. Others don’t. You can’t please everybody and on the whole it is not worth trying. You do it your way, be as conscientious and diligent as you can and let others judge. Whether I am a good Speaker is for others to judge. I feel I can do the job, as do the House, I think. My journey is an honest, conviction-based one. I accept it is unusual. It is usual for people to go to the Right as they get older. I have gone leftwards. It is an honest journey. As Speaker I have tried to do the right thing.”
So how will Bercow be remembered?
This is the view of a former cabinet minister I spoke to: “There are two John Bercows for the historians to write about – the controversial figure who is willing to break with tradition, which is quite in keeping with the role of the Speaker, to defend the rights of backbenchers; and the rather pompous fellow who loves to grandstand, who behaves very badly in the House, sometimes in a way that is not in keeping with the role of Speaker. Speakers should be seen and not heard too often, quietly keeping the business of the House flowing without themselves becoming an issue in the debates.”
Tim Yeo, the former Conservative minister, says Bercow has many detractors on the Tory side but he is not one of them. “He is controversial and sometimes talks too much; he deliberately rubs people up the wrong way. But overall he has been good for parliament. He has brought the executive to account through granting more urgent questions in the House; he has increased the standing of the House at a crucial time in our history.”
While he is still liked by some Conservative MPs, he is loathed by many more, particularly those Brexiteers who believe that he has used parliamentary procedures to try to thwart their aims, and by others who accuse him of undergoing a political conversion purely to win the Speakership. A former health minister, Simon Burns, once called him a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf”; another Tory I spoke to said: “I would throw him in the river if I had the opportunity.”
To some he is a modern day Speaker Lenthall. A friend of Bercow says that “he just wants to do right by parliament”.
And here is Bercow’s verdict: “I’m tempted to say I would like it to be on my tombstone that I was the backbenchers’ Speaker or champion. That may or not be the verdict. I sleep at night. I can look myself in the mirror. It’s a pug ugly sight.
“At least I have behaved honestly. I have tried to do the job to the best of my ability I have tried to speak truth to power. I have never been intimidated by the government of the day and I have no intention of starting now. I will do what I think is right according to my own lights, and with reference to our procedures.”
Bercow has spoken. He admits he speaks too much. We will hear much more from him in the coming days as his harmonious relations with Johnson are tested.
The two men played tennis together at the Foreign Secretary’s retreat in January 2017. The score? I’m given to understand Bercow was victorious.
Portraits by Tom Pilston for Tortoise