John Bercow may have swapped his oak and ebony throne for a Turkish sunlounger this week, but even while on holiday the voice of the diminutive UK House of Commons Speaker thundered around Westminster over what he saw as Boris Johnson’s attempt to sideline MPs to secure Brexit. “A constitutional outrage,” he declared.
Mr Bercow has acquired cult status around the world for his theatrical manner and dogged insistence that British MPs must be able to hold the Conservative government to account as it tries to extricate Britain from the EU. In an era of political chaos, the Speaker is a reassuring figure with his trademark orotund instruction: “Order, order.”
The role of House of Commons Speaker is part of Britain’s ancient parliamentary fabric, which is being ripped by the jagged political edges of Brexit. Even the monarch, Queen Elizabeth, was drawn into the fray this week when Mr Johnson asked her to formally suspend, or prorogue, parliament for five weeks in the middle of the Brexit crisis.
Within seconds of the monarch approving the request from her retreat in the Scottish Highlands, Balmoral Castle, Mr Bercow was fighting back, claiming the prime minister was trying to “stop parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country”.
Mr Bercow’s intervention itself was immediately denounced as “unconstitutional” by critics, who said the traditionally neutral Speaker had no right to express personal opinions in such a way. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading Eurosceptic cabinet member, cited the edict of a predecessor: “Speaker Lenthall said that he had ‘no eyes to see, no tongue to speak, unless directed by the House’.”
But Mr Bercow, for all his criticism of the government, has never been bound by convention. After bending Commons rules this year in a move that led to a Brexit defeat for Theresa May’s government, the Speaker intoned that if parliament were always bound by precedent “nothing would change — and things do change”.
Mr Bercow’s friends say he will not be cowed. “He absolutely will not in any case be bullied,” says one MP. “He will always fight back.” He has kept his seat in the Speaker’s chair for 10 years, surviving constant criticism from Tory MPs, accusations that he bullied his own staff and a botched 2015 government attempt to topple him. He is the first Speaker since the second world war to have been elected three times.
But he may be about to face his biggest test. As Brexit day approaches on October 31, Mr Bercow, who voted Remain in the EU referendum, will be at the heart of the biggest modern clash between parliament and the executive.
John Simon Bercow might have the manner of a Regency toff, but his background is rather simpler. The son of Brenda and Charles, a taxi driver, he was born in 1963 and attended a comprehensive school in the north London suburbs. He descended from Jews who arrived in Britain from Romania early in the previous century. From his early days, it was clear that he had a razor sharp mind and an inner steel.
“He was bullied as a kid but always gave something back to the bullies,” says Sebastian Whale, who is writing a biography of Mr Bercow. “He had acne, he was short — he’s five foot six and a half now — and he had anti-Semitic abuse.” As a child, he was called an “amphibian” and thrown into a pond, according to an earlier biography by Bobby Friedman.
A promising tennis player who was held back by asthma, Mr Bercow went on to Essex university, where he became involved in politics. An ardent admirer of Margaret Thatcher and the racist Tory politician Enoch Powell, he was also secretary of the “immigration and repatriation committee” of the rightwing Monday Club.
Even detractors recognise his oratorical skills. He is a superb mimic. Alison Clark, who worked with him at the lobbying firm Rowland Sallingbury Casey, recalls: “He started reading Jane Austen books and doing these impressions of the characters.” His antiquated style of speech still draws heavily on Austen.
Mr Bercow’s friends say his steady move to the political left is only partly linked to his marriage to a Labour activist, Sally, who sports a “Bollocks to Brexit” sticker in her car and with whom he has three children. His own political experience was more influential, they say.
Elected as Conservative MP for Buckingham in 1997, he quit the front bench in 2002 after then party leader Iain Duncan Smith instructed his party to oppose a bill allowing unmarried and same-sex couples to adopt. “That prompted John to reassess a whole range of his political beliefs,” says a friend. By the time he was elected Speaker in 2009, many assumed he was about to defect to Labour.
“Part of it is some form of guilt — making up for a set of beliefs that he feels embarrassed about,” says Mr Whale. But friends deny Mr Bercow has become a thorn in the side of Tory governments for that reason: they say he just wants to empower parliament to do its job.
Under Mr Bercow, ministers have been forced to defend decisions in the chamber where once they would have ducked for cover. Backbenchers have been given the chance to change the course of history: it is often forgotten that it was Mr Bercow’s willingness to bend the rules that allowed Eurosceptic MPs to force a Commons vote that led to the fateful 2016 EU referendum.
The consequences of that decision will play out at Westminster in the coming days. Mr Bercow will be at its heart.
The writer is the FT’s political editor
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