One of the reasons the word “bully” tends to hang in the air around John Bercow is that a) One of his former clerks once took time off work suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and b) he – allegedly – then took this opportunity to have her painted out of an official portrait of the speaker’s staff.
That, in the court of public opinion, is what has been declared to be “punching down”. But here’s a suggestion. What if he’s not just a puncher downer? What if he’s a puncher in every single direction he can manage? Up, down, sideways, back to front, any which way but loose.
What if, down there, in the realm where men of 5ft 3ins live their lives, his little fists have always been doing the hundred hand slap off Street Fighter 2, and will indiscriminately take out anything that comes within their range?
Because, on Thursday night, in an oak panelled room full of lawyers, the speaker of the House of Commons cleared his throat and let rip with a savaging of the prime minister that can only be described as PTSD-inducing.
This was not punching down, far from it. This was Scrappy-Doo, leaving Mike Tyson out cold on the canvas. It was delivered, of course, with the traditional Bercowian side salad of pomposity and self-regard that tends to render the main invisible, but not on this occasion. Not quite.
John Bercow is as angry about the prorogation of parliament as anyone. Indeed more angry than anyone. These are his final days in public life, and he is having to spend them giving speeches to lawyers, and not in his preferred location, which is to say, on his green throne in the House of Commons as the nation’s Pontificator-in-Chief. And he’s angry about it. Very angry.
Some background: with his last meaningful act before prorogation, Bercow made it possible for backbenchers, led by the Labour MP Hilary Benn, to pass a law that legally compels the government to ask for an extension of Article 50, if it fails to come to a deal with the EU by October 31st.
Boris Johnson, and more specifically Dominic Cummings, have, in the days since, made it known that they will do no such thing. Through “Number 10 sources” they have made clear that this is a law they are still umming and arring about whether to abide by.
And though John Bercow is not a man who is as bound by the constraints of the speaker’s chair as some may wish, here he was, liberated entirely from them, and making his feelings entirely known.
“Not obeying the law must surely be a non-starter. Period,” he boomed, his eyes briefly flashing with the same wild luminosity as his tie. “A non-starter. In 2019, in modern Britain, in a parliamentary democracy, we, parliamentarians, legislators, cannot in all conscience be conducting a debate as to whether adherence to the law is or isn’t required.”
He wasn’t done there.
“What conceivable moral force do the public’s elected representatives have, in seeking to tackle anti-social behaviour, in prosecuting with greater vigour and imagination and relentlessness the fight against knife crime, in arguing that the state must protect itself against all sorts of nefarious illegality, if we are to treat for a moment the proposition that it might be in order, in the name of some higher cause, to disregard a law enacted by parliament?”
He was, in no uncertain terms, loving it.
“It would be the most terrible example to set to the rest of society,” he went on. “One should no more refuse to request an extension of Article 50 because of what one might regard as the noble end of departing from the EU as soon as possible than one could possibly excuse robbing a bank on the basis that the cash stolen would be donated to a charitable cause immediately afterwards.
“We should not be in this linguistic territory. End of subject.”
It may very well be the case that not all of Bercow’s fights have been fair ones. That in many cases, it was his opponent, not he, that found themselves punching above their weight, and suffering the fate that tends to happen in such circumstances – they got knocked out, by him.
But not in this case, not a chance. This was a fight with a more than worthy adversary, the government, and it came off second best.
The Johnson government, and its psychopathic enforcer, Dominic Cummings, is currently engaged in conflict on many fronts, and it is not holding back on any of them.
It could, perhaps be, that of the many fights they’ve chosen to pick, the one with John Bercow is the most naive of all. In the weeks ahead, he will not be holding back.
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