Cushioned by the Speaker's chair, but ever the outsider
Unauthorised biography charts John Bercow's rise from right-wing ideologue
Sunday 10 April 2011
He has spent his political career as an outsider, struggling to win friends yet managing to alienate many of those people whose help he needed to progress. When John Bercow became Speaker of the House of Commons in 2009, it was a triumph over enemies in his own party as well as his political opponents. And this month, the unlikely rise of the self-proclaimed "Jewboy son of a taxi driver" will be underlined when an unauthorised biography reaches the bookshops.
The account of the "Marmite" politician lays bare Mr Bercow's story, from the "pugnacious little shit" who sat outside his house from an early age telling passers-by what was in The Times, to the truculent MP who now barks orders from the Speaker's chair. In between, he went from a hard-right ideologue to one-nation liberal – with a glamorous, Labour-supporting wife – who resigned as a shadow minister over the Conservative Party's opposition to gay adoption.
Above all, the book's author, Bobby Friedman, portrays a character who struggles to belong. Mr Bercow was the precocious intellectual denied a grammar school place by a headmaster's whim. He was the 5ft 2in teenager with greasy hair and acne, who refused to fade into the background and paid for it as the butt of relentless bullying (he was once dumped into the pond at Finchley Manorhill comprehensive).
While his father was Jewish, his mother was not. Moreover, Mr Bercow's father's occupation, as a car dealer and cabbie, heightened the sense of separation from north London's Jewish community. "They were different, they were less Jewish," recalled the MP's cousin, David Faktor. "We were brought up to think that we were better than them and maybe they felt that too."
At school, Mr Bercow's overbearing manner made it hard for him to win friends, of either sex. Nicky Crowther, one object of his affections, is "continually astonished" that he has since married. "He was loud-mouthed and had no gentleness or mellow good humour," she said. For a time, tennis consumed the young Bercow's energies and, among the under-12s at least, he was "practically unbeatable". However, when his opponents began to get bigger and he didn't, the former Middlesex champion concentrated on politics. He joined the Conservatives on Margaret Thatcher's advice, but the developing views that distinguished him at school were to cause him far-reaching problems.
Mr Bercow joined the right-wing Monday Club – a decision he later described as "utter madness" – while studying for his A-levels. He became secretary of its immigration and repatriation committee, as British cities were being consumed by riots. After a fractious three years, he left, complaining later of the "really unpleasant racists" at meetings. Friedman maintains that he left in protest at a motion he felt was anti-Israel. Nevertheless, arriving at Essex University in the early 1980s, Mr Bercow soon rose to prominence as chairman of the almost uncontrollable Federation of Conservative Students.
The dalliance with the extreme wing of the party did not hinder his progress within the mainstream. While standing in a series of unwinnable seats, he worked for Tory ministers. Eventually, after hiring a helicopter to fly him to the selection meeting, he was chosen to fight the ultra-safe seat of Buckingham.
Friedman originally vowed to exclude Mr Bercow's wife Sally from his book, but decided it was "wholly unrealistic" to do so. But the marriage to a vocal Labour supporter is not the only reason for Mr Bercow's estrangement from his party. His failure to ascend the Tory hierarchy as quickly as he had hoped left him disillusioned and led directly to his attempt to be Speaker. The move killed off any lingering hopes of progressing within the party.
"It's hard to say that someone who becomes the Speaker hasn't been a success," Friedman said last night. "But in different circumstances he would have been a very plausible member of a David Cameron cabinet."
Bercow, Mr Speaker by Bobby Friedman is published on 28 April by Gibson Square at £17.99. Buy it for £15.99, including UK p&p, by calling 0843 060 0030 or by going to www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
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