John Bercow: 'We need reform. Too bad if it disturbs people's lunch'

A year on from his appointment as Speaker, John Bercow tells Steve Richards why he is determined to change the culture of the House – starting with Prime Minister's Questions
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The Independent Online

John Bercow sits on a sofa in a large office overlooking the River Thames and dares to wonder whether, finally, he is secure in his role as Speaker. In the immediate aftermath of the general election the three party leaders were not the only senior political figures agonising over their fate. Bercow also was not sure what would happen next, fearing an attempt to remove him when the new parliament convened. At that point he had been Speaker for less than a year.

Instead he was re-elected unchallenged and as his first anniversary passes feels emboldened to take on his critics and press ahead with further reforms. By tradition Speakers do not speak out very much in public, but over a sandwich lunch at Westminster Bercow shows that this is one of several traditions he is happy to challenge. As well as attacking his critics, he defends his wife's right to be an active Labour supporter and highlights the reforms that have marked his first year.

Tomorrow he will make a speech arguing that Prime Minister's Question Time must change. "This is the most viewed of all the parliamentary events. Changing it would make the biggest impact, but while a lot else has changed this has not. It is far too noisy and needs to be conducted in a more civilised manner... Journalists love the cut and thrust, but the public detest it. We must not mistake media enthusiasm for a massive bust up with the views of the great mass of the public who don't like it".

Bercow has been doing some research and discovered that the era of what he calls "organised barracking" began in the 1970s because of the mutual loathing felt by Harold Wilson and Ted Heath. He wants it to stop and also wants the session to be less dominated by the clash between the two main leaders. "Six questions are too much for the Leader of the Opposition. They end up taking a large number of minutes, say ten minutes out of 30, that is a third of the time gone".

Bercow was elected Speaker a year ago in the midst of the expenses saga and describes the disclosures published in the Daily Telegraph as a "mercy killing, a disaster waiting to happen. We had failed to make the transition from private club to public institution. ...The new system had to be characterised by equity, transparency, audit and accountability. Some of my colleagues say the system fails in relation to equity, that it is too stiff and unyielding. Even so in my view the gains outweigh the losses. The idea that we can revert to a system run by the House is for the birds".

Nonetheless Bercow backs MPs over some of their concerns. "There's a strong argument for saying where there are working expenses of a sizeable kind they should be met up front. MPs are unhappy for example that they have to pay rent up front for their constituency offices...These are reasonable concerns and I have made the regulator aware of this. The new system needs bedding down, but I far prefer the present situation".

He prefers it to such an extent that Bercow senses the saga is close to an end. In making the point he launches the first of two attacks on the Daily Telegraph, evidently a newspaper of which he is not fond. "If there is a newspaper which has defined itself by MPs' expenses, massively increasing its sales, using it as its USP, if it thinks it's going on for several parliaments to come then it's guilty of delusion on an industrial scale."

Bercow was elected as Speaker on a reformer's manifesto. He highlights changes that followed his election, ones that he argues make the government more accountable to the Commons and take Parliament closer to modern Britain. "I think the most significant change is the resurrection of the Urgent Question as a means of holding the government to account. This is when a minister is called to the despatch box at the request of a member. The Speaker decides whether the request is granted. A year before my election there were two occasions when the request was granted. I have accepted 25.... It's a nuisance for ministers, disturbing a good lunch perhaps, but that's too bad. Their first duty is to the House. Ministers are likely to be a bit more careful from now on. If they don't offer statements they know they will be dragged to the House".

He cites faster progress on questions in the House and the election for deputy speakers as other important procedural reforms. His other internal changes appear to give him as much satisfaction: "Civil partnership ceremonies can take place in the House for the first time. Chris Bryant [the Labour MP] had a civil partnership here. We agreed to establish a nursery with good support from Harriet Harman, who was Leader of the House at the time. We've just appointed the first female chaplain who happens also to be a black chaplain." At which point he pauses before returning to a newspaper. "The Daily Telegraph called it a botched appointment."

He notes mischievously: " The Telegraph is all in favour of a female chaplain..but not in this case. And of course it is all in favour of a black chaplain.... but not now. And of course they are in an especially strong position to tell me they are right and I am wrong even though they did not interview her for the post and I did. In fact she is going to be fantastic".

Bercow also played his part in calling for the Commons to sit in September, as it will do this year. Now he goes further and opposes the convention in which the Commons stops sitting for the second half of September as the party conferences take centre stage. "It is quite wrong for party conferences to be used as an excuse for the Commons not to sit. Conferences could be held at weekends. Parliament should sit throughout September".

He is also proud to have hosted the UK Youth Parliament in the Commons, against the wishes of some MPs. Bercow is a good mimic and impersonates one of his critics: "One senior mp told me it would be a disaster. He came up to me and said, 'I have been here 30 years.. at the very least chewing gum will be left all over the Chamber and at worst pen knives will be used to tear up the chamber.' I told him they will behave better than most MPs..and they did."

I ask him whether the internal unrest over his election is related to his reforms or to him as an individual. His path to the post was an unusual one. At 47, he isrelatively young to have given up orthodox political ambition. The son of a taxi driver in north London, he was active in right-wing politics as a student and entered parliament in 1997 still firmly on the right. To the fury of some of his colelagues he moved leftwards after the party's 2001 defeat, becoming a moderniser long before David Cameron. He went as far as to defy his party's whip to support Harriet Harman's Equal Opportunities Bill in the last parliament.

It is rare for a Speaker to be seen as vulnerable so early on in his tenure and although the criticism has subsided, only last week a minister is alleged to have described Bercow as a "stupid, sanctimonious dwarf". Bercow has no doubt what lies behind the discontent of some Conservatives.

"It was overwhelmingly a personal objection to me...based partly on my perceived political views... Before becoming Speaker I committed the unforgivable heresy of changing. I was no longer a right-wing Conservative and that was bad enough for some, but to become Speaker when I was not the choice of "chaps" was a "jolly bad show". I remember saying at the time of the election at the Parliamentary Labour Party hustings that the truth of the matter was that most Conservatives wanted someone taller, more right-wing, more conformist and with a wife plucked out of central casting from Conservative Central Office". He adds: "My sense is that this has gone away now...David Cameron was supportive during the election and made it clear he wanted me returned". Bercow had faced a challenge from Ukip's Nigel Farrage in his Buckingham constituency. He won easily.

Bercow returns to the fray when I ask him about his wife, Sally. She is an active Labour supporter and a regular tweeter. Some Conservative MPs and parts of the media are uneasy about the supposedly impartial Speaker being married to a Labour supporter who would like to be an MP. Some suspect Bercow's journey before he became Speaker, from a right wing Tory to an MP who seemed in some ways closer to Labour, began when he met Sally. Bercow is unequivocally supportive of her right to do as she wishes.

"There are two categories who attack Sally or me – snobs and bigots. The snobs are those who regard themselves as socially superior because of their background, the person they have married, or the money they've got. The worst snobs are of no distinction at all. The bigots are people who cannot bear the idea of a Speaker with an opinionated wife. If she wants to be a Labour MP she has every right.....but of course whether she succeeds is a matter for her and Labour".

Bercow becomes more expanisve. "It's a cowardly form of politics to use my spouse to beat me. It has been tense at times for both of us. Sally tried to be open about problems she had in the past. We heard the Mail on Sunday was going to splash about how she had behaved badly in the workplace. Perhaps she had done. She was an alcoholic at the time. Anyway she gave an interview and it was blurred with other messages she got out, and people said to me, 'Oh I hear she used to sleep around'. The problem she was trying to get out was that she had a problem with alcohol, she was out of control and that put her in silly and dangerous situations. She got a rough press out of it but the central issue remains the same: can one's spouse pursue a career independently? My view is an unequivocal Yes. Now people say it's different because I am Speaker and that I'm impartial, but Sally doesn't have to be. She never uses the title Mrs Speaker and she has no desire to. She's not bound by impartiality in the way that I am."

In his non-partisan role Bercow wants the government to make announcements in parliament first, and not to the media. In the spirit of new politics has the coalition been better at this than the last government? He pauses. "I don't think there has been a great improvement. It's difficult to catch a minister red handed but I hope the new government learns soon as an unmistakeable symbol that this has to be different ... It is neither here nor there for someone to say that this happened in the last parliament ... two wrongs don't make a right ... ministers must accept responsibility and apologise if they make announcements to the media first".

Culturally he notes a new restiveness in the Commons. "There's a genuine sense of anger on the part of Labour with the Liberal Democrats for being their deficit financing friends before the election and their Friedmanite foes after it". He stresses he is making an observation and not a political comment on the Liberal Democrats. But he is also relaxed about this form of anger, saying it is genuine compared with the "organised barrage at Prime Minister's Question Time".

He is extremely concerned about the barrage and returns to where we began the interview. " I have noted an excellent new member. She's made an outstanding start. And yet I saw her bellowing during PMQs. It's the herd instinct. We've got to stamp it out".

The herd have a Speaker determined to change their ways on several fronts. At a time when many grand claims are made about a new politics Bercow's public openness marks an historic break with Speakers of the past.