It’s Wimbledon time again, and whilst I had been meaning to write something on the tennis, I suppose John Bercow’s elevation to the Speakership is also worth covering. Which is kind of fitting, because he’s a well-regarded tennis coach and could have been a decent player if his health had permitted.
I must admit that I quite like the guy. And a lot of this, frankly, is that he arouses such hatred amongst the Tories that, as Claude says, he must have something going for him. I notice, for instance, that the Daily Mail‘s resident pervert, Harry Potter lookalike Quentin Letts, has written a whole series of extraordinarily spiteful and personal attacks on Bercow. And while young Mr Letts has been unusually prolific, his tone hasn’t been entirely unique. It’s difficult to recall when there’s been so much concentrated character assassination against one individual, but the chirpy Mr Bercow has conquered all.
But why the depth of the hostility? The invaluable Nick Robinson comments:
What is it then that makes so many Tories loathe (and that is the right word) John Bercow?
It is his extraordinary political journey which has made even observers of it feel travel sick: Moving from anti-immigrant Enoch Powell backer to Thatcherite fanatic and finally to occupant of Labour’s big tent.
At every stage Mr Bercow spoke with the same apparent lack of self-doubt.
Those who can forgive the journey can often not forgive the style with which it was taken. One Tory, as I reported the other day, suggested that Mr Bercow would read the weather forecast or the phone book as if he was Henry V on the eve of Agincourt.
Another has suggested that he’s the sort of referee who thinks the crowd has paid to see him.
There are two aspects to this, the journey and the style. The journey, by the way, is not all that unique. It is true that Bercow was a teenage member of the Monday Club, back in the days when David Aaronovitch was in the Communist Party, several members of the current cabinet were advocating the nationalisation of the country’s top 200 monopolies, and most of the current shadow cabinet were still adolescents at Eton. If Bercow still had anything of the Monday Clubber about him, it’s doubtful whether someone like Martin Salter would publicly associate with him – indeed, Martin admitted that he would have happily knocked the block off Bercow’s previous incarnation.
So he’s changed a lot, largely due to age and experience. But his emergent social liberalism has been evident for quite some time. We saw it back in 2001, when he resigned from Iain Duncan Smith’s shadow cabinet to vote for the repeal of Section 28, after Duncan Donuts had been daft enough to impose a three-line whip on what should have been an issue of conscience. And we saw it in last year’s debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, when he was one of the few Tories to make a sensible speech and to vote against restricting abortion rights.
There’s also the job he took on as a government advisor, something that the Tory press has been banging on about incessantly. This job, which he undertook with the agreement of his own party leader, was to write a report on the needs of children with language and communication difficulties – a subject that, as the parent of an autistic child, Bercow has some personal involvement with. You would think that would count for him, not against him.
What’s also the case is that there are plenty of Tories, both in Parliament and the commentariat, who started off almost as far out on the loony right as Bercow did, and they too have moved a long way. Take Dave Cameron – Peter Oborne describes him as the continuation of Michael Portillo by other means, which may be a little unfair to Don Miguel; he has incautiously described himself as the “heir to Blair”. He’s very much multicultural and metrosexual. His top team – Boy George, Gove, Vaizey – are just as culturally liberal as their New Labour oppos. And the Tory benches will be significantly more so after the election, given that Dave has been taking the opportunity afforded by the expenses scandal to rid himself of some of the Sir Bufton Tufton types and shoehorn in some Cameroonian Unconservatives in their place.
No, the style thing that Nick identifies is important. It’s not so much that he’s moved a long way in his personal views, as that his waspish tongue hasn’t spared those who haven’t moved as far or as fast. I enjoyed his kebabbing of the ludicrously overpraised Nadine Dorries during the HFE debate, but evidently Ms Dorries didn’t, and seeing her sitting ashen-faced and shaking her head in horror as Bercow took the chair was worth the price of admission by itself.
There’s also a less reputable undercurrent to this. Much of the criticism of Bercow’s personality has centred on him being a pushy arriviste. Possibly he is a pushy arriviste, but that’s a line I would be cautious with when he comes from what the late Harold Macmillan would have called the Old Estonian wing of the party. There are still some Tory MPs who insist on referring to him by his family name of Berkowitz, and I suspect that isn’t a clever reference to the Son of Sam.
For further enlightenment, one might point to the comments box below Ben Brogan’s Torygraph profile of Bercow, where we find this:
Where does Mr Bercow stand the continuing Israeli settlement of Palestinian land? His answer will demonstrate whether or not he can be relied to give an even answer if and when he becomes Mr Speaker. I don’t think he will.
Although I don’t know what that has to do with the price of Jaffa oranges. In case we’ve missed the insinuation, another commenter opines:
Who is John Bercow when he’s at home ? We want somebody English,from the indigenous population.
Let me be clear though, I’m not saying that Bercow’s critics are – in their great majority – motivated by anti-Semitism. I think that we’re actually talking not about the Son of Sam but about the Son of Martin. There were legitimate questions to be asked about Michael Martin’s suitability for the job, but these were repeatedly obscured by the sort of people who would bang on about his proletarian background, or make fun of his accent. Those people said more about themselves than they did about Martin.
It wasn’t difficult to detect a sectarian undertone in the digs at “Gorbals Mick”, but I don’t think Martin’s Catholicism was the issue per se. Those folks probably wouldn’t have minded a posh Catholic of the Norman St John Stevas variety – it was a working-class Glaswegian Catholic they objected to – and they probably wouldn’t mind a posh Jew either. The hint of anti-Catholicism just lent a little piquancy to the caricatures of Martin. Somehow I doubt the sketchwriters will be so keen to parody Bercow as Parliament’s answer to Sammy Glick, so they’ll have to give this a little thought. Perhaps Mr Letts can just go back to doing what he does best – playing with himself while fantasising about Jacqui Smith’s tits.
Anyway, the little man has got the job, and thanks to the upheavals of recent weeks will be the most powerful Speaker in living memory. So far, he’s been good with the optics, ditching the fancy dress, keen to do interviews – on the grounds that the Speaker should be an ambassador for Parliament to the broader public – and doesn’t hold with this idea that the Speaker should be an aloof, cloistered figure. It remains to be seen what he actually does with the job.
Oh, and it was nice that some other people were also upset. That is the gormless members of the public who had been flooding the message boards demanding that Ann Widdecombe be made Speaker on the grounds that, well, “We’ve seen her on TV and we don’t recognise those other guys. And she looks like she would be no-nonsense, like Hattie Jacques in Carry On Matron.” Now the same punters are howling that MPs have disrespected their wishes by not electing Widdecombe. People that thick really shouldn’t be allowed to vote.