John Bercow: 'I have been to Sudan ... seen the poorest people on the planet. They need our help'

The Monday Interview: Shadow Secretary of State for International Development
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The Independent Online

There is gurgling in the background at John Bercow's house in Buckingham. It is the Tory MP's eight-month-old son, Oliver, chipping into the political debate. "He is such a happy, bubbly, enthusiastic, good-natured little boy," Mr Bercow says. "I now know what people mean when they say children put everything in perspective. If I have had a bad day or a disagreeable argument with somebody, as soon as I get home and see Oliver's wonderful smile, I instantly feel better. I love him to bits."

John Bercow, who married Sally Ilman, a glamorous Labour supporter 18 months ago, is a late convert to the concept of work-life balance. One of the Tories' most energetic figures, he pops up relentlessly in debates and in broadcast studios, with eye-catching interventions on subjects ranging from gay rights to hanging.

These days the party's "pocket Disraeli", as colleagues call him, is preoccupied with the world's poor. Promoted to shadow Secretary of State for International Development by Michael Howard, he has spent the past nine months jetting to blighted areas, to understand the lives of the underprivileged. He says the most difficult part of the job is going to the airport and saying goodbye to his wife and son.

But with an almost evangelical zeal, Mr Bercow says his "daily preoccupation is now with the plight of the poorest people on the planet". He adds: "I do not spend a minute a month thinking about the rich. I have been to Zimbabwe, the West Bank, Burma, Sudan. I have seen the poorest people on the planet. They need our help."

Mr Bercow is focusing his considerable energy on helping the people of Sudan's Darfur region, where a million of them have been displaced and genocide is suspected. On a visit to the stricken region, he saw the horror of the refugee camps where whole villages have fled to escape the killing sprees of the government-supported Arab militia, known as the janjaweed.

"It was one of the most miserable sights I have witnessed in my life," he says. "Nothing can fully prepare you for the seeing the plight of people in quite the most ghastly circumstances. There was an atmosphere of misery and fear. We saw things that brought tears to your eyes."

In Sudan, Mr Bercow met a notorious janjaweed warlord, to his considerable surprise. But the MP for Buckingham, recognised as one of the most engaging orators in modern politics, does not flinch from confrontation or debate. Since his return, he has been trying to drum up British support for an international peace-keeping force.

He has written to the Prime Minister urging him to back sanctions against the Sudanese government and send in troops. "We need the international community to stand up to this band of thugs and to protect the people of Darfur from the threat of genocide," he says.

Although the Government is still considering its response to Sudan, Mr Bercow has had some success in convincing the Tory party to harden its line on the conflict, and to back the sending of British soldiers. But on the wider issue of funding for aid, he is still doing battle with Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, who has threatened to freeze the Tory aid budget to find cash for hospitals and schools.

Mr Bercow thinks going into the election without a credible expenditure commitment on aid would be "extremely foolish", adding: "If you just say, 'We really want to help the poor but I don't think we will be able to spend much on them,' we would be hissed off the pitch," he says. "Warm words are not enough. We have to be prepared to say, 'Yes, we will spend money'."

Mr Bercow believes giving cash for aid will help the Tories shrug off their image as the nasty party. "My very strong view is we cannot simply walk by on the other side," he says.

But there was a time when Mr Bercow would have been more than happy not to cross the road and play the good Samaritan. When he entered the House of Commons in 1997, he was the darling of the Tory right. Dubbed "Tebbit the younger", his name was practically a by-word for intolerance.

At 18, he was secretary of the hard-line Monday Club's immigration and repatriation committee, which supported halting immigration and paying immigrants to leave Britain. Reportedly, it also wanted to abolish the Commission for Racial Equality.

These days, he recalls his "bone-headed views" on race with some embarrassment. "It was madness to be a member of the Monday Club, utter madness," he says. "I thought, at the time of the Brixton and Toxteth riots, that it would be very, very difficult to integrate the ethnic minority communities into mainstream British society. That is why I supported a halt to immigration and at one time I did support a programme of repatriation. But I ceased to believe in that more than 20 years ago."

Mr Bercow's early commitment to sending back immigrants is curious, given that his paternal grandparents were Jews who arrived in Britain from Romania a century ago. Mr Bercow says he has been the victim of occasional anti-semitism within the Tory party but has always treated such bigotry with "the disdain it deserves" and has risen above it. His father, a Tory-voting car dealer, encouraged his son's early interest in politics, but did not live to see him become an MP.

"He was a reformed Jew," Mr Bercow says. "He let me do my own thing. I was a teenager and I formed my own views." Over recent years, Mr Bercow has experienced something of a Damascene conversion, swapping his right-wing posture for that of a social liberal. He is at the forefront of the party's modernising wing and says believing in "one nation" is an article of faith for the Tory party.

"I am talking about people who are black and white, young and old, able-bodied and those suffering from disabilities. I am very strongly committed to sexual equality, not only between men and women but people of different sexual orientations."

Mr Bercow famously resigned from Iain Duncan Smith's front-bench team over the former Tory leader's opposition to adoption by homosexual couples. Today, he is openly critical of Tory peers' recent attempt to "wreck" a bill going through Parliament which would allow lesbian and gay couples to register their relationships formally. But many Tory MPs are baffled by Mr Bercow's preoccupation with equality and gay rights and blame his Labour-supporting wife for softening his views. Mr Bercow says his political conversion began long before they got together.

"The challenge for the Tory party is to be comfortable with the modern world," he says. "I am not saying we should try to outbid the Labour Party in a Dutch auction on modernity. The challenge is simply to show we are comfortable with the modern world." Mr Bercow says that to veer to the right would be "an unmitigated disaster" and guarantee a loss at the next general election. "There is not the slightest prospect of Alf Garnet commanding a majority," he says.

As a teenager, John Bercow was mesmerised by Margaret Thatcher, who was his local MP in Finchley, north London. He still believes she was Britain's most formidable peacetime Prime Minister, but says the Tory party must move on. "One of the downsides of Thatcherism is that we did start to come across as very harsh and uncaring to the most disadvantaged in the community," he says.

He believes Conservatives still spend too much time "talking to ourselves" rather than reaching out to people and non-Tory voters. "We have to show we are forward-looking and that we share people's values," he says. "It is a question of overall image. It is about persuading people we share their concerns."

Mr Bercow believes the party's commitment to the NHS and state-run schools is "absolutely crucial" to winning votes. "We need to demonstrate over and over again that most people depend on public services and we want them to be better," he says. Little Oliver was born in an NHS hospital and his father says he has decided to send him to a state school where he can grow up with friends from all backgrounds.

Michael Howard has put the party on the right path, he says. But he admits the party still has "a huge task" to win over the voters before the general election. "There is an electoral mountain to climb. There is no denying that," he says.

Although Mr Blair has lost the trust of voters, Mr Bercow says, he remains the Tories' "most difficult opponent". He is the "most formidable Labour leader there has been," he gushes. Breaking the convention that politicians never praise the leader of an opposing party, he adds: "I admire the Prime Minister's humanitarian internationalism. I supported the war against Iraq. I think he showed enormous courage and statesmanship."


Born: 1963

Education: Finchley Manorhill School; University of Essex, first-class honours in government, 1985

1986 : Conservative councillor in Lambeth

1987-89: Deputy leader of the Conservative Opposition Group

1997: MP for Buckingham

2000 : Spokesman for Home Affairs

2001: Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

2002: Shadow minister for Work and Pensions

2003: Shadow Secretary of State for International Development