John Bercow is standing down, but only after an hour and a half of welling up at tributes to himself

The speaker’s bombshell announcement turned out to be about by far the most important matter in the speaker’s life – the speaker himself

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Tuesday 10 September 2019 11:59 BST
John Bercow to quit as speaker by October 31

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Louise Thomas

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Sally Bercow was sitting up in the gallery, her knuckles pressed into her teeth, gazing down upon the speaker's chair like a laser beam.

Education questions were coming to an end. The speaker, John Bercow, took a sip from his water glass, and flicked a splash of its contents into his eyes.

Above his head, reporters rushed in to take their seats. Through the doors behind and in front of him, MPs swept in and on to the green benches.

He had let it be known he was making “a statement”. In the last tremorous year, interventions of this kind from the speaker’s chair have been rare but seismic.

We were hours away from Boris Johnson proroguing parliament, a move that has been quite rightly understood as an attempt to force through no-deal Brexit against the wishes of the House of Commons. Speaker Bercow had broken briefly from his holidays to call the matter a “constitutional outrage”.

It had been speculated that he might be about to announce that he wouldn’t go. That he’d stay in the chair, all night and beyond, keeping parliament open, taking it rogue.

In the end, it was much more important than that, much more. The speaker’s announcement was about by far the most important matter in the speaker’s life the speaker himself.

“Colleagues...” Pause. Bercow could not have tried harder to bear down upon the occasion with as much weight as his own personal gravity could muster. In the gaps between his words, Commons staff went on their lunch break and came back.

“I would like to make a personal statement to the house.” Pause again. We can only speculate that it had been brought to the speaker’s attention that somewhere in a far galaxy, a distant star was coming towards the last few hundred million years of its natural life cycle, and it was important that the subsequent supernova not be allowed to interrupt his moment.

“At the 2017 election, I promised my wife and children that it would be my last. This is a pledge that I intend to keep.”

There was a sharp intake of breath. It was expelled again even sharper. Was that it? Yes it was. It was not to be entirely without drama, which may be the one human thing Bercow values above himself.

“If the house votes tonight for an early general election, my tenure as speaker and MP will end when this parliament ends,” he said.

Ah yes. The house was due to be having a vote on whether to have an election. That vote, which might have happened at about 11pm, was now going to be well into tomorrow, once the speaker’s Very Urgent Business had been dealt with.

“If the house does not so vote, I have concluded that the least disruptive and most democratic course of action would be for me stand down at the close of business on Thursday 31 October.”

This last-minute bit of chicanery served one purpose, which he then made clear. That there is almost certainly going to be a general election in November or December, and so it would be this parliament, not the next one, that would elect a new speaker. Good luck getting a Brexiteer in this chair, in other words.

It was at this point, at this rarefied day at this rarefied hour in the life of the nation that Bercow found time, in a parliamentary schedule that was already full to beyond bursting point, for 90 minutes worth of tributes to himself.

Jeremy Corbyn went first. Then Michael Gove had a go. Various people applauded. There will, in the fullness of time, be a specific time in the parliamentary schedule allocated for tributes to the speaker. But on this occasion, all of them were taken as points of order, which means the speaker is required to respond to them all individually.

Bercow’s eyes swelled. He glanced up at the rafters. Here was the House of Commons, talking in gushing terms about Bercow, spiked with the sound of Bercow’s own voice. If he’d dropped dead in this instant, it would not have taken the pathologists long to discover the deadly cocktail of substances involved. A Bercow speedball.

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Jo Swinson... Dominic Grieve... Ian Paisley Junior... David Lammy. By the 90th minute of tributes it was hard to tell merely with the naked eye whether the speaker's chair itself had not risen from its dais and Bercow was now floating above the Commons as if on a cherry picker above a festival crowd.

At some point, evidently, it had all got so much for him that he had briefly forgotten all of the many bullying and harassment allegations against him, the reports into his conduct that remain outstanding.

So much so that, when he modestly brought the tributes to himself to an end after a mere hour and 40 minutes, he allowed himself the little indulgence of a 90-second bellowed peroration at the Tory benches, as an MP tried to object to a debate he had granted.

“Don’t tell me young man, from a sedentary position, what I can and can’t say!” he shouted, at the very top of his voice, eyes a mile wide. The young man in question was either James Duddridge, 48, or Graham Stuart, 57, no one could tell which.

“If you’re not interested, leave the chamber! Leave the chamber! I’m not remotely interested in your pettifogging objection! The position is as I’ve described it, and quite plainly, young man, you can like it, or lump it!”

Bercow’s overdue but nevertheless premature exit means it is unclear whether various investigations in to his conduct will ever be completed. Arguably, it was generous of the great man to take this opportunity to assist anyone considering coming to their own conclusions.

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