Nothing is, or should be, less controversial than the annual Hansard Society lecture given by the Speaker of the House of Commons. When the Speaker assumes office, he or she sheds all old political loyalties and from thereon steers clear of any divisive. Once a year, he delivers a talk to the great and good about the importance of maintaining high standards of public service in Parliament.
Last week, this task fell to John Bercow, the 105th Speaker of the Commons. Mr Bercow took care to explain – in case anyone present did not already know – that his role did not allow to venture into party politics. Yet in the question and answer session, he faced aggressive questions from the audience about his attitude to Britain's future in Europe – a reminder that people who think EU membership is a conspiracy against the British people by the political class are gunning for John Bercow.
Controversy has hovered over the head of the diminutive Mr Bercow ever since he was elected to succeed Michael Martin in June. No previous Speaker has gone into a general election fearing that he might lose his seat, because they are protected by a convention that none of the main political parties puts up a candidate against the Speaker. Fringe parties have not signed up to the deal, but they have never yet posed a serious threat to any Speaker, since it is one of the greatest offices int he British parliamentary system.
But Mr Bercow became Speaker at a time when the public's respect for Parliament is as at an all time low, which makes the past an uncertain guide to the future. He is being challenged, in his Tory seat of Buckingham, by the former leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, a clever and energetic campaigner who looks and sounds more like a middle class Tory than Bercow does. This is not surprising, because Farage's father was an eminent city trader, whereas Bercow is the son of a minicab driver from Essex.
To add to the danger, the bundle of right wing prejudices that Farage will bring to the campaign trail are very similar to those that fired Bercow when the Buckingham Conservative first chose him as their candidate, 13 years ago. He is from the generation of working class Tories who idolised Margaret Thatcher and despised those who preceded her. His patron was that impacable Thatcherite, Norman Tebbit. When Bercow arrived in the Commons in 1997, Labour called him 'Tebbit the Younger'.
But he has since been on a political journey that has taken him so far away from the Tory right that it was widely though incorrectly rumoured that he was going to defect to Labour. His support in the election for Speaker came principally from Labour MPs. And, although Bercow has not joined the Labour Party, he has in a sense, married into it. His wife, Sally Illman, is from a very different background. He went to a state school in Finchley; she went to Marlborough College, one of the country's most expensive boarding schools. She was a Tory once, but campaigned for Tony Blair in 1997.
Tory wives are usually expected to help their husbands by attending party functions, such as coffee morning – but Sally Bercow is now standing as a Labour candidate for a council seat in Pimlico. She is unlikely to win it, but she hopes it will be a step towards a Labour seat in the Commons.
This week, she gave a startling interview to the Evening Standard, in which she opened the cupboard to show the world the skeletons it contained, to head off the risk that they might be uncovered later. In the interview, she praised Gordon Brown as "peerless", dismissed David Cameron as "a merchant of spin" and the Conservative Party as the "party of the privileged few." But what made the headlines was her frank statements about drink and casual sex.
"I was an argumentative, stroppy drunk," she said. "I would end up sometimes at a bar and someone would send a drink over and I'd think, ‘Why not?’ and we'd go home together. I liked the excitement of not knowing how a night was going to end. It was all very ladette."
It has now emerged the Speaker also has form. A comic article he wrote when he was a 23 year Tory councillor in Lambeth has come to light, in what must be an excruciating reminder of the youth he once was. The ‘John Bercow Guide to Understanding Women’ includes such observations as “women will settle for anything that breathes and has a credit card.”
One section was headed ‘How to pick up virgins’. Another was 'How to get rid of a girl after sex'. He also suggested "Maybe we could go back to your place and name your breasts" as a chat up line.
The Tory MP Nadine Dorries has said openly that Bercow and his wife have shown such “poor judgement” that he ought to be removed from the Speaker’s chair. If the Tories win the next election, they may put that threat into action, if Bercow is still there. But that is not his immediate worry. Before that, there is the question of how this week’s revelations will go down with the Conservative voters of Buckingham.
Speaker Martin was the first in more than 300 years to be sacked by his fellow MPs. Speaker Bercow is in danger of being the first to be sacked by the voters.
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