A new word has entered the political lexicon at Westminster in recent days: Sprexit.
It’s the one MPs are using to describe the growing possibility that, after many years of trying, they might at last be about to evict John Bercow from the Speaker’s chair.
When Bercow was elected in 2009 — allegedly with the support of just three of his fellow Tory MPs and after currying favour with Labour by supporting gay adoption and other politically correct issues — he pledged he would follow his predecessors and serve ‘for no more than nine years in total’.
The expectation was that he’d go by the end of June this year.
Needless to say, Bercow has no intention of keeping his word.
He made this clear after the Tories lost their majority in the 2017 General Election, announcing that he would stay until the end of the current Parliament, currently scheduled to be in 2022.
When John Bercow was elected in 2009, he pledged he would follow his predecessors and serve ‘for no more than nine years in total’
Bercow explained that this was to help ensure stability and continuity after the seismic political events of 2016-17: ‘I had originally intended to serve for approximately nine years. If I may legitimately say so, that commitment eight years ago was before the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act and the EU referendum,’ he told Sky News last summer.
But there is now every possibility that the irrepressibly smug and evidently fickle Speaker may be bundled from office against his will.
The threat this time is not from Tory MPs, many of whom were appalled by his decision to break his pledge to quit and have long been trying to oust him amid claims of his political correctness and bias, particularly against Brexit.
In the bitterest of ironies for Mr Bercow — who secured his elevation to Speaker by promising to improve working conditions for female MPs — it is now coming from the Labour sisterhood.
Despite introducing a Commons creche and more family-friendly hours, Mr Bercow’s popularity has plunged among the 119 Labour and 67 Tory women MPs since allegations emerged earlier this month on Newsnight, the flagship BBC2 current affairs programme, that he bullied a senior Commons clerk, Kate Emms.
The bullying, which Bercow emphatically denies, was allegedly so sustained and intense that Ms Emms, who started to work for him in May 2010, survived for less than a year before quitting.
She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and now works as a Parliamentary adviser to the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom.
Ms Emms declined to speak to the Mail, but her allegations — among others — are likely to be the subject of an independent inquiry into bullying in Westminster that was set up last week by the House of Commons Commission, the overall supervisory body of Commons administration which is chaired by one John Bercow.
Mr Bercow’s popularity has plunged among the 119 Labour and 67 Tory women MPs since allegations emerged that he bullied a senior Commons clerk, Kate Emms (pictured)
The Commission, which began its inquiry last week, was forced to act after Bercow and two other MPs — Tory Mark Pritchard and Labour’s Paul Farrelly — were accused on Newsnight of intimidating staff. All three men deny the claims.
Separately from the bullying claims against Bercow, Pritchard and Farrelly, Newsnight reporters investigating conduct in the Commons more generally spoke to dozens of female clerks at Westminster who claimed they were victims of aggressive and threatening behaviour, including being pushed against walls, forcibly kissed, groped and slapped by MPs.
Colleagues of Ms Emms told Newsnight that Mr Bercow had shouted at her and undermined her in front of other staff.
The women said their complaints had not been taken seriously, and that they were moved to different jobs. They spoke of a ‘culture of fear’ and said they ‘lacked confidence’ in the Speaker’s record on staffing matters and his ability to oversee the reforms the system needs.
This weekend Bercow’s former private secretary added his voice to the allegations of bullying in the Commons. Angus Sinclair, 65, was private secretary to Bercow’s predecessor Michael Martin for four years, then worked for Bercow himself for a year until he was made redundant in 2010.
Sinclair said he had raised concerns with senior clerks shortly before he left about the way he was treated but failed to make a formal complaint, which he now regrets. ‘I was exhausted and I shut up about it,’ he said.
Bercow strongly refutes all accusations of bullying, but given the brewing storm at Westminster and the allegations hanging over him, you might have expected him to step away from any debates or investigations into the matter.
The House of Commons Commission was forced to act after Bercow and two other MPs — Tory Mark Pritchard (right) and Labour’s Paul Farrelly (left) — were accused on Newsnight of intimidating staff. All three men deny the claims
So when he remained in the Speaker’s Chair during a short debate in the Commons on bullying following the Newsnight allegations, MPs were astonished. There was also every indication he planned to chair the Commission when it met to set the terms of reference for the bullying inquiry.
Eventually, however, as the controversy grew and senior women MPs complained about his intention to do so, Bercow backed down.
It was a dramatic moment for those who have taken an interest in the Speaker’s career. Until then, arrogant and high-handed Bercow had always got his way, assuming he could ride roughshod over MPs.
He has survived many controversies, from issues over expenses to his Labour-supporting wife Sally’s embarrassing antics. The bullying row raises the most serious question mark over his future.
Kate Emms is a highly regarded civil servant — so well thought of, indeed, that she features in a 2015 book and website, Parliamentary Role Models, which seeks to promote Parliament as a positive, inclusive workplace.
‘I bring my personal values to work by trying to be consistent in my dealings with all the people I come into contact with,’ Ms Emms writes. ‘I aim to behave towards others in a way that I would expect to be treated myself.
‘I feel immensely proud to be a role model. I hope to use the opportunity to share my experience and to be of some use to Parliament and those who work here and visit.’
Given her standing, it is little wonder that Labour women MPs in particular have taken her complaint so seriously.
The inquiry team now being set up by the House of Commons Commission will not include MPs, and will be chaired by an independent expert.
Another long-standing factor in his lack of support at Westminster has been the conduct of his wife Sally (pictured with Mr Bercow), with whom he has three children
Initially, it will take a general look at the apparent culture of bullying at Westminster and report in June, just as a new grievance procedure is put in place.
But Leader of the House Leadsom and some senior MPs are lobbying to have the inquiry extended to include complaints made against individuals, including Mr Bercow. He has also been accused of being abusive to a postman who works at Westminster.
If the Speaker is called before the inquiry, he will be under intense pressure to step aside from his official duties until the results are published.
One senior source said: ‘It will be the prerogative of the new independent chairman of the inquiry whether they speak directly to Bercow. But it’s clear that individual and high-profile cases will have to be looked at.’
So far Ms Emms has made no formal complaint against Mr Bercow. However, there is growing speculation that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Hudson, may be asked to look into the Speaker’s conduct separately.
The source added: ‘If there is a growing caseload of evidence against someone like Bercow, the Parliamentary Commissioner can look into it even without a complaint from the person who has been bullied.’
Jo Swinson, deputy leader of the Lib Dems and a former junior Equalities Minister, is also pressing for individual cases to be investigated — and soon.
Ms Swinson told the Mail: ‘I think they have to be investigated and not put off but resolved this year. Parliament has to be seen to be taking these cases seriously by investigating them.’
Caroline Lucas, the Green Party leader, says ‘there might be a case for [Bercow] stepping back temporarily’. Jess Phillips, a Labour MP, agrees: ‘Clearly there has to be some kind of independent investigation. And it may be that he should consider stepping back until that has taken place.’
In addition, Mr Bercow faces a new challenge from two senior women Labour MPs who have let it be known that they are considering running for his job.
Harriet Harman (pictured), former acting leader of the Labour Party, was overheard in the Commons discussing the bullying row with Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski. ‘We need a Speaker with dignity and class,’ he told her
Harriet Harman, former acting leader of the Labour Party, has been taking soundings from MPs. She was overheard in the Commons discussing the bullying row with Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski. ‘We need a Speaker with dignity and class,’ he told her.
It is surely a measure of Bercow’s deep-seated unpopularity that even the fiercely partisan Harman, high priestess of political correctness, is preferred as Speaker by many Conservative MPs.
Dame Rosie Winterton, a Deputy Speaker who was Labour’s chief whip for six years until she was sacked by Jeremy Corbyn, is seen as an even stronger contender.
There is a growing sense that time is finally running out for John Bercow.
‘He can’t control his temper and is always lashing out,’ a well-placed source told the Mail. ‘He should go on an anger management course, as the tools of his trade are ridicule and spite. On the positive side, he has enabled more backbenchers to speak and ministers are forced to answer more emergency questions. But the negatives outweigh the positives. They are becoming a killer.
‘For the first time MPs are talking about Sprexit — the end of Bercow. The emergence of a serious woman contender is dangerous for him.’
And the Speaker has form for unpleasant behaviour. In 2014 he was the subject of a formal complaint when he allegedly told Sir Robert Rogers, then Clerk of the Commons, to ‘f*** off’. A spokesman for Bercow denied the claim, saying: ‘His style is more verbose than a four-letter word.’
Rogers, a highly respected figure, quit early after only two years in the post, fed up with Mr Bercow’s tantrums.
In the Commons chamber, Mr Bercow is demonstrating increasingly erratic behaviour and what Tory MPs see as rudeness and inappropriate conduct.
In one heated exchange, he accused Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss of ‘launching into rants’ and told the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, ‘stick to your abacus, man’.
Last year, after the revelations of sexual harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein (pictured), Mr Bercow put himself at the front of efforts to tackle any abuse in the Commons
In another clash — with Nigel Evans, a popular former Deputy Speaker — Mr Bercow barked: ‘Do not shake your head at me, Mr Evans. I have told you what the position is. You ask an orderly question, or you do not ask a question…’
When he calls the Tory MP Richard Drax to speak, he often reads out his full name: Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle- Erle-Drax.
‘He’s deliberately ridiculing Richard, who is bemused as to why the Speaker picks on him,’ the source says. ‘The Speaker is supposed to be the custodian of standards in the Commons, not a fourth-form bully.’
A spokesman for Bercow said last night: ‘The Speaker completely and utterly refutes the allegation that he behaved in such a manner, either eight years ago or at any other time. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply untrue.’
Asked about the allegation that he bullied a postman, the spokesman said: ‘The Speaker has no intention of responding to anonymous attacks.’
Bercow, who is paid £152,500 a year and lives in a magnificent grace-and-favour house within the Palace of Westminster, has always been his own worst enemy. Earlier this month he was criticised after it emerged that there was a sign in his car declaring ‘B******* to Brexit’. The Speaker is supposed to be impartial at all times, of course.
Another long-standing factor in his lack of support at Westminster has been the conduct of his wife Sally, with whom he has three children.
Mrs Bercow posed for a newspaper draped in only a sheet, with Big Ben and Parliament in the background, in 2011.
There were also arched eyebrows at Westminster when she appeared on the downmarket reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother.
The marriage appeared to be over in 2015 when it emerged that she had an affair with the Speaker’s own cousin, Alan Bercow, who was also married.
Alan moved into the £1.2 million flat the Bercows own in Battersea, South London, but within five months it was over and she moved back to Westminster after her lover returned to his wife.
Last year, after the revelations of sexual harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Mr Bercow put himself at the front of efforts to tackle any abuse in the Commons.
‘There must be zero tolerance of sexual harassment or bullying here at Westminster,’ he wrote, adding that procedures to tackle harassment and bullying must be ‘credible, enforceable and comprise an independent element’.
Some five months on, that statement sounds peculiarly hollow.