Speaker to trade places with Kabul counterpart

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The Independent Online

John Bercow is used to facing the flak as one of the most controversial speakers of the House of Commons in recent times. But he is about to embark on a journey which may give him an entirely new perspective on what that means.

The MP is to trade places with his opposite number in the Afghan parliament, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, in an effort to bond the democratic institutions of the two countries.

Afghanistan will be a daunting baptism of fire for Mr Bercow after Westminster village. He will face an atmosphere of violence, intimidation and fear – and that is just in the parliamentary chamber in Kabul. Outside, there is the small matter of the raging insurgency which has led to a number of attacks on the Afghan capital – the latest the storming of the five-star Intercontinental Hotel.

Conservative MPs may wish the move east by the Speaker was permanent. David Cameron, who appears to have a strong dislike of Mr Bercow, could well be tempted to announce that as Britain disengages from Afghanistan at least one high profile UK official should stay on to help with nation-building. Asked if Mr Bercow had actually been asked to participate in the project, a Downing Street spokesman said: "I am sure he is fully supportive of our efforts."

It is unclear whether Mr Bercow's redoubtable wife, Sally, will accompany him to Afghanistan. The visit would provide a welcome and fitting distraction from recent unpleasantness back home, when she was threatened with legal action by Carpetright after suggesting the company was going under. If Mrs Bercow decides to boycott Carpetright in retaliation, there are few better places than Kabul for alternative supplies.

Mrs Speaker will, however, have to dress much more modestly than she did in her now infamous photoshoot in the Evening Standard, when she was snapped wearing only a bedsheet. She may, in fact, consider wearing a burka while shopping for rugs. Attacks on foreigners, and especially the threat of kidnapping, have noticeably increased, and Sally will undoubtedly be noticed.

Mrs Bercow has declared she finds the Commons "incredibly sexy". It will probably be unwise to use such terms in Kabul. If she does accompany her husband to the Afghan parliament, she will find a few differences.

The constitution guarantees that 25 per cent of all seats are reserved for women, but doing the job can be hazardous for female MPs. Zarghuna Kakar, who represented one of the constituencies in Kandahar, had to flee to Kabul after an Islamist ambush in which her husband was killed. Conservative mullahs had warned her for being involved in "man's work" and ordered her to stay at home.

Mr Bercow, who has made a point in the Commons of asking MPs to behave with decorum, will have a harder ride in Kabul. Mr Ibrahimi has suspended MPs for their transgressions, but at a cost of brutal threats. He has brushed this aside, pointing out that his own tribe is formidable and people would think twice before starting a blood feud. The Bercow clan may not have the same type of cachet in downtown Kabul.

Some Afghans, at least, gave the scheme the benefit of the doubt. Fayuz Nasruddin, a political analyst in Kabul, said: "It is an interesting proposition, and maybe we can learn from each other."

From Westminster to Kabul

Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi

The speaker of Kabul's House of the People has two wives, six sons and eight daughters and is the brother of a Jihadi commander. A graduate of Kabul University, the 51-year-old member of Afghanistan's minority Uzbek ethnic group only this week had to keep control of what can become a rowdy house when a brawl broke out as two female MPs exchanged blows after a discussion about Pakistani rocket attacks.

John Bercow

Vertically challenged cabbie's son Bercow is the former campaigner for the "assisted repatriation" of immigrants and, as a young Tory, was branded too right-wing by Norman Tebbit, before drifting to the left of the Tory left. Controlling the house is a tall order when your limelight-loving wife is embarrassing her party (Labour) and you aren't hugely popular in yours (Conservatives).