Steve Richards: This man's triumph reveals the Tories' dark side

Wednesday 24 June 2009 00:00 BST

Five myths whirl around the election of John Bercow as Speaker. The false assumptions shed light that extends well beyond a single parochial contest.

The first myth was outlined by the shadow Leader of the House, Alan Duncan, on yesterday's Today as he sought to explain why Tory MPs loathe Bercow. Duncan said his colleagues were angry because they felt he had sucked up to Labour MPs over the years in order to achieve his ambition of becoming Speaker. In fairness I should add that Duncan distanced himself from this view, although he was one of those who could not disguise his dismay when the result was announced.

The fatal flaw in the argument is that until recently it seemed almost certain the election for Speaker would take place in the next parliament when the Conservatives are expected to be the biggest party and Labour a much diminished force. It was only after the expenses saga that the former Speaker was forced out prematurely and a vacancy suddenly arose. Until then nearly everyone at Westminster assumed Michael Martin would stagger on until the election. If he had done so Bercow would have been better placed sucking up to his Conservative colleagues. Bercow chose not to do so. It might be difficult for some Conservative MPs to accept, but perhaps he spoke out on policy issues partly out of principle.

This brings us on to the second myth. Anyone watching the anger on the faces of Tory MPs when the result was announced might assume that Bercow was a raving leftie. In fact he has made a stand on a number of limited issues including his support for gay adoption and for the abolition of the anti-gay Section 28. He lost his job on the front bench under Michael Howard partly for arguing that the budget for international development should be maintained rather than cut. Bercow's reward for being genuinely progressive on a limited number of issues was the loathing disdain of virtually the entire parliamentary Conservative party.

The second myth leads on to the third. There seems to be a fairly widespread assumption the Conservatives have modernised under the leadership of David Cameron. Evidently they have not modernised enough if they can get so worked up about Bercow's modestly progressive views.

Partly they are angry because some Labour MPs were playing games, electing the one Tory they cannot stand. No doubt some Labour MPs were mischief making pathetically, but the fourth myth is that Labour benefits politically from the election of Bercow. The opposite is closer to the truth.

For Labour the most expedient outcome would have been the election of Sir George Young. With Boris Johnson wielding power in London and Cameron seeking a move to No 10, voters might have asked whether there is a limit to the number of old Etonians they wish to rule over them. As a bonus for Labour it is highly likely that Bercow would have defected, not least after the waves of hate from his own side in recent weeks. If he had done so he would have argued that contrary to their claims the Conservatives have not changed very much since the last election. Now Bercow is neutered and can no longer pose a threat as a genuinely progressive Tory contemplating a move to Labour.

The neutering of Bercow is the key to the fifth myth. Some Tories fear, and perhaps some Labour MPs hope, Bercow will be biased. He will not be. There is no scope for bias in what is a limited brief. Any candidate for Speaker stands on the basis that he or she is happy to leave the old political battles to others. Bercow has decided he wants to be a high profile parliamentarian rather than an active Tory or Labour MP.

I have no idea whether Bercow will be any good at the job, although as I wrote last week he would have been my choice. But the Tories' fuming sense of entitlement as they look towards power and their anger at the rise of a moderniser to a position of limited influence raise fresh questions about what they would be like if they win the next election.

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