Monday, December 14, 2009

The John Bercow Interview

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed the new Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. You may have seen a couple of articles in the Mail on Sunday, Telegraph and Guardian about the interview. Bercow reveals the lengths to which Labour went to persuade him to defect but denies he ever thought about it, says that senior Fees Office staff won't be transferring to the new IPSA and floats the idea of The Speaker becoming the Member for St Stephens. Admittedly, this is not a new idea, but it was interesting that he raised it at all. He said it was not his role to either advocate it or reject it. The interview took place the day before his wife's interview with Anne McElvoy, but his words about her potential political career are very revealing.

The story which no one has picked up so far (HINT HINT!) is when I suggest a way of reforming PMQs. I proposed that there should be no preannounced questions and that he should pick people entirely at random. This, in my view, would do a lot to eliminate planted questions. He seemed genuinely taken with the idea.

You can read the whole interview HERE, but here are a few extracts...

When we were both students together, 20-30 years ago, did it ever cross your mind that this would be the position that one day you would aspire to hold?

No! Absolutely not. I hadn't given it a thought before I came into Parliament and for a very long time afterwards. The first time the thought was planted in my mind was when it was put to me by Jonathan Aitken. It was in 2003. I'd left the frontbench on my own volition and Jonathan, in his rather philosophical way, said: "Well of course you'll very likely return, if you want to do so, to the frontbench. But you know John, there are always other ways you can make a success of a political career and make your contribution." He mentioned his Godfather, Selwyn Lloyd, who became Speaker. It wasn't then and there I decided I'd like to do it. But, a couple of years later, towards the end of 2005 the idea did germinate in my mind.

Was there a point when you thought: 'I'm not going to progress in the Conservative frontbench and so I really need to think about what I'm going to do?'

It's very difficult to date it precisely. It was about the time of the election of David Cameron as leader. In June 2005 I had got myself on the chairman's panel. I thought I was unlikely to be asked to return to the frontbench and I was extremely doubtful whether I would enjoy it. That, by the way, is not intended to be interpreted as a commentary on David Cameron or indeed on any other leadership contender. It was simply that when I was on the frontbench, although I enjoyed parts of it and it is a great privilege, I didn't enjoy enough of it to be frank. And if I am brutally candid about it - although I don't think I'm devoid of ability and have some contribution to make - on the whole, I was a pretty lousy frontbencher. I was lacking in self-discipline. I was not willing to commit to a collective line. I was a poor team player. And it was neither in my interest nor in the Conservative Party's interest for me to be on the frontbench. When I was on the front, I wanted to be on the back. Periodically when I was on the back, I wanted to be on the front. I thought, this situation is a recipe for discontent and unhappiness and that's wrong because Parliament is a great privilege. So I thought: "Come on , pull yourself together. You're over 40. Make a judgement about what you think you should do and stick to it." I made the judgement that I prefer to work away on the chairman's panel and if the chance came to stand as Speaker, I would take it.

You said you don't like sticking to a line, you don't like rigidity. But you don't have a huge amount of latitude as Speaker. How did you think this job would be different to the restrictions you have to endure on the frontbench?

You're right that the Speaker doesn't have huge scope. The Speaker doesn't have huge powers or huge opportunities on a daily basis to make changes. But the Speaker does have some opportunity to bring about change. The role of the Speaker, so far as I was concerned, was not something that should be considered to be set in concrete. In other words, you could make some changes through exhortation and encouragement and working effectively with colleagues to bring about greater scrutiny. Secondly, you could develop the Speakership to make it more outward facing. It was always in my mind that if I did stand, I would argue that the Speaker should not be a purely internal figure shrouded in mystique, dressed up in a fancy costume and largely inaccessible to the public. Of course, the chair comes first, but the Speaker should be out engaging with civic society and in my first five months that is what I've tried to do.

Did you ask Michael Martin for any advice?

I didn't. And I don't mean that in any disrespectful way to him.

So he didn't contact you to give you advice?

He didn't - no. Michael Martin took a very hands-off approach to the Speakership campaign which led to my election, which was absolutely proper. I have considerable respect for him. He had a very rough time. Like every other Speaker, he had his strengths and weaknesses - he's a human being. I'm sure at some point in the future we shall meet. I think he wants a bit of distance; he wants to establish himself in his new role.

What did you make of this apparent antipathy among many Conservative MPs towards you? You clearly didn't get that many votes from them and yet you are in command of the whole House of Commons. You wouldn't be human if while sitting in the Speaker's chair you didn't look at the Tory benches and think to yourself: 'Well, you bastards didn't vote for me...'

The Speaker has got a duty to be completely impartial and demonstrably fair. I said, Iain, in standing for election that that is how I'd go about the job and I meant it. It's probably human nature that people nevertheless speculate as to whether you'll lean a bit this way or a bit that way. The truth is you have a professional obligation to block that out and to make fair judgements. So if you say to me, do I sit there thinking this set of people or that set of people is hostile and therefore either I'm going to be hostile back or I'm going to bend over backwards not to be, the honest answer is 'no'. If you ask me why there has been some Conservative hostility it would be coy and surreal of me to decline to answer and I would be quite happy to offer an answer.

I think there are a number of factors. First of all, I think there is a very natural Conservative disposition to favour someone for the role of Speaker who is somewhat older, who has perhaps served in Parliament for somewhat longer. If we can have prime ministers running the country in their forties, why can't we have Speakers running the House in their forties? Secondly, there is no denying that very significant numbers of Conservative MPs felt that I hadn't been a team player and they didn't see why I should get the prize and the opportunity of being the Speaker. I can understand that point of view and even respect it, but it doesn't mean I have to share it.

Wasn't the real reason for their antipathy the suspicion that you were considering defecting to Labour and were overtly friendly to Labour in some of the speeches you were making?

You've beaten me to it! I think there were people who felt that I had co-operated quite a lot with Labour and Liberal Democrat Members and, yes, 'he's one of our MPs but only just'. I never had, at any time, any intention of being [anything] other than a Conservative Member of Parliament or, eventually if I was fortunate enough, to be Speaker. I have no desire whatever to be a member of another political party and I don't say this with any resentment - I wouldn't be meeting you if I did - but I know you yourself have once or twice commented that you really felt I was the most likely suspect.

The truth of the matter, which only I know - and possibly Sally, my wife - is I never had any intention whatsoever in joining another political party. Yes, there has been much gossip and speculation over the years, but it was never my intention at any time. I received approaches before I ever thought about becoming Speaker. I received various approaches from various senior people in the Labour Party saying: "Aw, you know, we'd love to have you on board. We think you're being discarded by the Conservatives. We think you'd be quite at home with us." Senior people, not in a formal setting, but people sidling up to you - ex-ministers, current ministers, backbenchers, whatever. And, I always said no, because I felt at heart that I was most comfortable being a [Conservative] for a whole variety of philosophical and practical reasons. I'm sure there were people who thought: 'Urgh, we don't want him. He's been mooted to be someone who's going to defect. He cooperates with the other side too much.' I had no desire to shift at any stage. I felt myself fundamentally to be a progressive Conservative.

You were caught up in the expenses scandal yourself and repaid some money. Do you find it more diffi cult to act as a spokesman for cleaning up the system when you were involved in the whole Telegraph saga in the first place?

I don't find it more difficult because I'm not in denial. I 'fessed up to the situation which confronted me. The issue that came up, which I confess I had not been anticipating, was the payment of capital gains tax on the sale of a property in 2003. I can tell you absolutely candidly, from the day I sold that property and for that year completed my tax return, until the day I was approached by the Daily Telegraph about it, I hadn't considered the matter. I took professional advice at the time, and I did what I was told any citizen lawfully could do which was to take steps within the law to minimise my tax burden.

However, if you say to me, is it actually right that a Member of Parliament should be expected to treat his or her property for tax purposes in the same way as for expenses purposes; the honest answer is 'yes'. I knew I'd sold my property for a very small profi t, and I just didn't remember whether I paid tax on that or not. Do I complain about the fact that the Daily Telegraph highlighted that matter? No, I don't complain at all. I think there are people who have some grounds for complaint. I think the Daily Telegraph sometimes is unfair to people.

I don't complain about it, and it doesn't cramp my style as Speaker because we're not electing a saint. We are electing someone who is going to chair effectively in the chamber, stand up for the rights of backbenchers, be an effective chair of the House of Commons Commission, which has got an important set of responsibilities, and be an effective and robust advocate of democratic politics on behalf of this place to civic society. I am not saying I am some sort of saint but I am certainly saying that it is possible for all of us to put the past behind us by accepting responsibility and committing to thorough and immediate change.

Why haven't any senior officials in the Fees Office lost their jobs? It seems to me that they were the ones that failed in their duty, just as much as politicians.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) will in due course be up and running. Some staff from the Resources Department will join IPSA but by no means all, and I am not anticipating that the most senior staff from the House of Commons Resources Department will be joining IPSA... Repeat, I am not anticipating that the senior staff...

I get the hint... Were you embarrassed by the coverage of the amount of money that's being spent on the Speaker's apartments?

I was sorry that the coverage was what it was. I requested a number of adaptations to the apartment above these rooms because I am the first Speaker to live in the apartment with a young family for at least 100 years, if not in recorded history. There is a difference between a couple in their sixties living in a property and a couple with three very small children. Some changes did have to be made. I'm sorry that the point didn't get across that where changes are made, those are for the ongoing benefit of the property.

For example, yes, I can tell you I spent public money on child locks. I defend that; I don't want my kids falling on the terrace or into the River Thames. But it's true that we also acquired a new sofa suite. We did that because the sofa suite there was massively uncomfortable, and it was completely unsuitable for children. There was a considerable amount of maintenance work done which the House authorities expect to do. I'm sorry that it was represented as being sort of an act of greed or selfishness on our part. It was nothing of the kind and I just wish that these papers were prepared to offer a fair characterisation of these things.

Does PMQs serve a purpose any longer? Does it not need to be drastically reformed? Not just changing the day but allowing you as Speaker to pick random MPs each week to ask the questions?

I do have some sympathy for that idea. I think that the start of the next Parliament is the time to make reforms. But such a major rethink is possible and desirable. I don't know if it will get rid of planted questions altogether because the whips will always want to be sure a certain message is percolated across their benches, and they'll have thought about that in advance. But there is some merit in what you're suggesting, and we can certainly look at it. That isn't a 'I hear what you say' answer. I think it's a good idea.

There's something to be said for the cut and thrust of exchanges between the prime minister and the opposition. I still feel we could move to a model in which those exchanges were shorter and more time for backbenchers to take part. The time taken up by exchanges between the prime minister and David Cameron and Nick Clegg is a very substantial part of Prime Minister's Questions. Certainly it's more than half. I am deeply discontented and inclined to look for any opportunity to foreshorten it. It's difficult to do anything more than that at the moment but if you ask me would I prefer less time for the frontbenches and more time for the back then the answer would be 'yes'. I would like to look at how we can achieve that in the early weeks and months of the next Parliament.

Can you let us in on the conversation between you and your wife when she told you she wanted to be a Labour candidate?

[Laughs] I can't be an advocate of more women in Parliament, which I was consistently for a number of years, and then try to stop my wife exercising her democratic right. I know some people find it really hard to understand that you can possibly be married to, or partner with, somebody who's got a different party affiliation from you. Of course there are people who are going to find it odd. But I know Labour people who say they couldn't possibly be married - in Parliament - with a Tory. It just genuinely happens to be the case that my wife Sally and I have not argued much about politics over the years.

We've disagreed about the Iraq War; I supported it, she was against it. We disagreed about hunting because I defended consistently - and I have no regrets about that - whereas she's anti-hunting. We strongly disagreed on Europe, where I took a basically eurosceptic position - I voted against all the treaties, and I was always opposed to joining the euro - whereas Sally's a very keen euro enthusiast. She has long been a Labour supporter and since, I think, 1997, a Labour Party member. I was, until 22 June of this year, a Conservative. So was I taken aback or shocked, or did I try to dissuade her? No, no, no.

The point I'm making is that it's going to inevitably bring press attention. We've already seen it with the Mail on Sunday coverage. That's a distraction for you, isn't it? An unwelcome distraction.

The way in which the media report these things can be an unwelcome distraction but an unwelcome distraction is not a good reason to try to stop somebody pursuing her democratic rights. You're asking me is the way the press report it a mild nuisance? Yes, it is but I'm not going to have my life dictated by it. Look, I respect that people have got their own views about these things. One thing I do think is quite wrong and unfair is for somebody to say: "Oh well, it's improper for the Speaker's wife to be engaged in acts of politics." That's wrong. It may well add to the spice of life, it might well cause me some difficulties in terms of press coverage, but to suggest that it's somehow constitutionally improper is quite wrong. And the simple reason for that is that the obligation for impartiality applies to me. It does not apply to Sally, and deep down I ask you to consider this, and hope you might even agree. It's a deeply sexist view based on the idea that the wife is my chattel.

If Sally ever got into Parliament that would be no problem. If anything, it would be a problem for her because I would have to demonstrate very clearly that she wasn't getting preferential treatment.

You are facing a challenge at the next election. Isn't this convention that the Speaker isn't challenged a fundamentally undemocratic one?

I don't think it is fundamentally undemocratic because it isn't a rule, it's not a law. It is a convention and I think that you have to look at what the alternative would be. If you said, well, party candidates from the main parties will stand, it will be quite difficult to get anybody to stand for the role of Speaker. It would be very difficult to have more than a one-term Speaker because obviously a lot of people do vote, even now with declining party loyalties, on the basis of party allegiance. If we chose to reconfigure the Speakership in the way that it operates in many other countries - where the Speaker does vote in all normal votes, not just where there's a tie as here, and does campaign for a party - that would be a different situation. But I don't sense any enthusiasm on the part of the House to do that.

The second point is that now and again - I'll try and deal with it up front - it is suggested perhaps what should be done is that the Speaker should be given a separate constituency, usually known as St Stephen's, which represents a small area around Westminster, and that the local constituency he or she is taken from should be able to hold a normal party election. The House of Commons can always decide to do that if it wants. My attitude is that, as such a decision would affect me directly, it's not right for me to be either an advocate of it or resistant to it. The only thing I would say is I do enjoy having constituents and believe that I'm still well and truly able effectively to represent the people of my constituency. I do just want to underline the fact that it is both possible and it would be necessary for the Speaker to continue to be a highly active constituency MP, but I won't face, I suspect, major party competition, but I will face opponents.

Quick Fire

Worst Christmas present you've ever given?
I once gave some lingerie to my wife that she regarded as naff, but I won't describe it further. And I have not repeated the exercise.

The thing you wish you'd known at 16?

That short-term debt shouldn't have stopped me qualifying for the bar and practising at it. My only major regret is that I would have liked to have been a barrister. Partly because I have no private money and it was actually a bit beyond 16, I decided not to pursue it.

Read the whole interview HERE.


Johnny Norfolk said...

I cannot stand the man. I hope UKIP get shut of him.

Tom said...

Nothing about his thoughts on Speakership tradition (his clothing in particular)? Shame. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Thats a rather nice interview. Glad to see he comes across as human.

David Lindsay said...

Bercow wants a new seat of Saint Stephen's, with only MPs as the electors and with no party candidates, to which in practice the Speaker would always be elected unopposed.

Still, good to see that he has written off his chances against Nigel Farage at Buckingham.

Unknown said...

The idea of the Speaker, once elected by MPs, being appointed to a notional "St Stephens" constituency is not a new suggestion.

The idea is to avoid the voters in the Speaker's constituency not having a full choice of political parties to vote for - as looks likely in Buckingham. The Speaker could still be voted out by the MPs in parliament.

There was a Bill put before parliament in 1963 promoted by various MPs including Richard Marsh and Jeremy Thorpe. The Bill was supported by many Labour and Liberal MPs but narrowly defeated by a number of Conservative MPs.

See below an extract from Hansard in 1963 at

In a speech to the House in 1963 by Richard Marsh MP, to create a special constituency (St Stephen's) for the Speaker, he said:

"Your own seat, Mr. Speaker, in Westminster, will also be contested at that time. Already, there is a candidate from an extraordinary party known as the Fellowship Party. I understand, too, that a candidate has already been nominated from a party better known but just as extraordinary, the Liberal Party. Even more important in terms of realpolitik, there will almost certainly be a candidate from the Labour Party. The House therefore faces the position that it is now quite clear that at the next General Election Mr. Speaker's seat will be contested.

That will be the fifth time that Mr. Speaker's seat has been contested in the last hundred years. In the first two of those contests, the Speakers concerned were Mr. Speaker Peel, in 1885, and Mr. Speaker Gully, in 1895, and both contests arose in rather different and rather special circumstances. But the contests for Mr. Speaker's seat in 1935 and 1945 and the contest for that seat at the next General Election arise, in my view?and I put this for the consideration of the House?from the failure of the present arrangements to satisfy two conflicting aims."

He went on to say:

" It is not the function of a Member of Parliament merely to be able to raise constituency issues on behalf of his constituents. In a democracy, it is the right of an elector to be able to pronounce on the big political, international and economic issues of the day, and as long as Mr. Speaker's seat is, by tradition, not contested, the electors within that constituency are deprived of the opportunity properly of expressing their political point of view on the big issues of the day.

For that reason, it is important that we should see whether there is some way in which we can achieve both these aims. I am suggesting, in my proposed Bill?and it is not a particularly new idea?that there shall be constituted a special, and a nominal, constituency of St. Stephen's which would be represented by Mr. Speaker upon his election to that office. Mr. Speaker would become the Member for St. Stephen's. There would then be a by-election in his former constituency, in which the electors would be represented by the party politician of their choice."

David Evershed

Bon said...

I was interested to see the subject of PMQs approached, but the answer was sketchy at best. I agree that the Speaker should be picking the questions, so we can get rid of plants once and for all. These planted questions leave me so angry at the waste of time. If the 'plant' questions were pushed back in by whips, they should be disallowed by the Speaker.
It would be nice to see a split of PMQ's for the House, and then a separate 'Leaders Question' session for the other party leaders and the PM.

It is a pity that we didn't hear any plan to put pressure on the PM to answer questions, rather him seeming to regularly answer a question that suits him rather than what was asked.

Plant Questions and the PMs slipping out of questions does leave me deeply angered, as it does others I know. That needs to be something the Speaker begins to deal with, along with Expenses and Policy Announcements.

Mirtha Tidville said...

And his wife has just been given the nod to apply for a Liebour constituency at the next general election...

The best of luck to Farrage

Voice of Reason said...

This is a very thoughtful and candid interview and what is particular worth noting is the way it has been totally misrepsresented in the press. Speaker Bercow doesnt have a preference for a seperate contstituency - but this is not how the Daily Mail reports your interview. The other thing that comes across is here is a MP who is both independently minded and from the Conservative tradition. He was never about to defect to Labour.This nonesense has come from Mad Nad Dorries who has become obessed about this issue. Thank heavens we have MPs like John Bercow in Parliament rather then Party robots. We should be proud that the Conservative Party has one of its former MPs in the Chair and someone who is a modern reformer as well. Go John - hope you beat that twit Farage

Kate j Norden said...

He appears to be a king cnut, and does not have the required integrity to be an effective Speaker

Tapestry said...

Every time he speaks, Bercow weakens his own position and that of his Party.

No wonder Labour like him so much.

It's as if he doesn't really care much about any of it.....except what he gets.

Not without talent, but quite without principles.

Newmania said...

Hed is trily the nastiest cockroach in public life and if Farrage beats him you will hear me cheering