Point of order, Mr Speaker: Please stop speaking
Talking is part of his job description. But some people have begun to wish that John Bercow would occasionally shut up.
The Independent's parliamentary sketch writer and columnist since 2000, Simon Carr was described by Tony Blair as "the most vicious sketch writer working in Britain today". "Poison," said Charles Clarke. In the 1980s he helped launch The Independent, and was a speech writer for the prime minister of New Zealand from 1992 to 1994. His working principle is "Indignation keeps us young."
Saturday 04 February 2012
What a golden age it presently is for Speaker-watchers. We are witnessing the flowering of a great comic creation, and we haven't even had to make him up. John Bercow is in full command of the House, his authority is unquestioned, he's almost certain to be re-elected and serve his full nine years – his confidence expands like a weather balloon the higher he rises.
We see it in the way he talks, the way he caresses favourites and spits tacks at those he doesn't like, and in the way he has started joining in with the House during debates.
In order then. The dialect he has invented for himself has moved to a new level in the last weeks. It's not just his royal "we" ("We are exceptionally grateful"), it's his syntax. It seems to be generated by an out-of-control 19th century software program. Take this example.
"Secondly, moderately vivid imagination though I possess, a fact to which I made reference in responding to someone last week, I really cannot imagine a colleague whom it is more impolitic or foolish to fail timeously to answer than the honourable gentleman."
Is this an attempt at high table grandeur? Is it how he thinks Speakers spoke in the glory days? Is it to distance himself gently from his inferiors without alienating them?
It's not just the quality, the quantity is also new. Hansard shows he speaks 700 and 800 words in a day's sitting. Michael Martin before him spoke 100 to 200, as did Betty Boothroyd.
The other Thursday at Business Questions, Mr Bercow kept dozens of MPs at attention in front of him while he spoke a total of 93 words making an appeal for brevity.
In recent days, to answer John Cryer's Point of Order asking if the PM had contacted the Speaker to make a statement, he took 202 words (the answer is essentially one word). To Jeremy Corbyn's request for a longer debate on Iran, he said: "That is not a matter for the Chair", but took 203 words to say it. And four points of order (from Paul Flynn, David Winnick, Brian Donohoe and Mark Pritchard) in one combined reply on the subject of the PM calling Denis Skinner a "dinosaur"? A mammoth 387 words.
In that last pronouncement, he said: "Sometimes people are funny, sometimes they think they are funny, sometimes they think they are funny deliberately when they are not, sometimes they do not realise they are funny when they are." Is it something to do with how he thinks posh people talk? He is certainly touchy on that subject. He brushes off any criticism saying – perhaps a little grandly – that his critics are "socially insignificant". The nearest inspiration isn't Dickens, or Malvolio, or Speaker Lenthall but Hyacinth Bucket – "pronounced Bouquet").
A question mark over the Speaker's neutrality is also beginning to loom larger.
He flirts with those he likes. At the dispatch box, Mary Creagh relates a conversation with a minister and he describes it as "a racy and intoxicating account". He allowed Chris Bryant to respond to being called with the words: "You are cheeky, Mr Speaker!"
When Labour's John Mann had his 20 Presentation Bills read out some MPs thought it a bit of a stunt. Mr Bercow obviously agreed with the doubters and said the Mr Mann had been "a busy bee". When David Cameron said he was searching for a word to describe Labour leader Ed Miliband, the Speaker said: "The Prime Minister is exceptionally well educated and I am sure he has a very full vocabulary and can make proper use of it."
The Labour Party doesn't feel any of this to be improper because it is the beneficiary. But the urge to join in might lead to trouble. Last week, the Speaker interrupted David Cameron for some badinage with shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. "With all that gesticulation and hand-waving from the shadow Chancellor, I thought he was playing with his cooking utensils," he said jovially. This was a reference to a Mail on Sunday story about a lasagne party in the Balls' household for 30 Labour party members which was pitched by the paper as the preparation for an anti-Miliband coup.
For the House of Commons Speaker to be poking fun in public at this most tender spot of the Labour Party – especially as he is a self-confessed "Balls man" – reveals how he is getting out of hand.
The next season of John Bucket (pronounced Bercow) is set to start on Monday.
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