A scathing new biography of John Bercow reveals the hypocrisy of the former Speaker for claiming to be a champion of diversity when, in fact, he was at the centre of numerous allegations of bullying women.
Here, in the final part of our serialisation, we tell how he tried to salvage his legacy by sabotaging Brexit…
Speaking to students at the University of Reading just months after the EU referendum, John Bercow said he was ‘conscious that I am in office at a momentous time’.
In an unprecedented move for a sitting Speaker, he shed light on how he voted, saying: ‘Personally, I voted to Remain. I thought it was better to stay in the European Union than not.’
A scathing new biography of John Bercow reveals the hypocrisy of the former Speaker for claiming to be a champion of diversity when, in fact, he was at the centre of numerous allegations of bullying women. Pictured: John Bercow alongside wife Sally
His comments amounted to one of Bercow’s biggest political gambles.
Though sources argue that such events are usually carried out under the Chatham House rule – ie off the record – many of Bercow’s university talks are later uploaded to YouTube.
The comments would always have been made public – and he knew it. In outing himself as a Remainer, Bercow left himself wide open to the charge of bias.
Professor Vernon Bogdanor, of King’s College London, says: ‘He’s the first Speaker, I think, ever to have expressed a view on a controversial public issue, and I think that’s tainted his Speakership.
‘His procedural judgments may be right or wrong, but they’ve been tainted by the fact that people think they’re influenced by political opinions. The Speaker should be neutral, like the Queen.’
Julian Lewis MP, Bercow’s best man and close friend, was also taken aback.
‘I’ve had to accept the fact that John has become over-committed on this,’ says the Brexiteer.
‘He did not consult me before taking that fateful first step – which I think he should never have taken – namely, to reveal to those students that he voted Remain. That, as far as I’m concerned, was a Rubicon.’
Once out in the open, the issue refused to go away. A sticker attached to the windscreen of a car belonging to the Bercow family caused a sensation at Westminster.
On it was written the battle cry of Remain campaigners: ‘B******s to Brexit.’
A sticker attached to the windscreen of a car belonging to the Bercow family caused a sensation at Westminster.
There are insiders at Westminster who believe to this day that Bercow not only allowed his personal views to affect the debate, but even used parliamentary procedure to try to block Brexit
On January 9, 2019, the Tory MP Adam Holloway raised a question in Parliament. ‘This is a serious point about partiality,’ he told the Speaker.
‘Have you driven that car with the sticker in there?’ Bercow responded by stating that the accusation was factually inaccurate.
‘That sticker on the subject of Brexit happens to be affixed to, or in the windscreen of, my wife’s car,’ he said.
‘I am sure the Honourable Gentleman would not suggest for one moment that a wife is somehow the property or chattel of her husband? She is entitled to her views.’
There are insiders at Westminster who believe to this day that Bercow not only allowed his personal views to affect the debate, but even used parliamentary procedure to try to block Brexit.
With the Cox Report [into the culture of behaviour in Westminster following claims of bullying and harassment] still fresh in the mind, a former No10 aide believes Bercow made a cool calculation: ‘A cynic would suggest he had a choice to make, which is: do you want to be the guy who went down in history as a reforming Speaker, but also treated his staff badly and was rude and boorish, or do you want to go down as the guy who did everything they could to try to haul the Government over the coals in terms of Brexit and to play to a very particular audience?’
Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General, visited Bercow in the Speaker’s apartment on January 8, 2019. The Tory MP for Beaconsfield, one of the Speaker’s constituency neighbours, had become a vocal opponent of a No Deal exit from the EU.
Although he proposed an amendment to an official motion outlining the Brexit timetable of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, he knew he was chancing his arm.
This was because, based on centuries of precedent, the view was that once the motion had been passed, it was not able to be altered, except by a Government Minister.
This one had, after all, been approved by Parliament a month previously. ‘I knew very well what I was doing when I tabled an amendment, and I thought he [John Bercow] would reject it,’ says Grieve.
Bercow asked to see Grieve in his study.
‘This is a very interesting amendment,’ said the Speaker, telling Grieve he would take a final decision the following day on whether or not it would be voted on in Parliament.
‘I will need to reflect on it overnight,’ he said. Surprised, Grieve told the Speaker: ‘You do realise it’s controversial?’
‘Of course I know it’s controversial,’ replied Bercow. ‘I will make up my own mind.’
Grieve explains: ‘I certainly did not want to lure him into doing something improper. I actually went out of my way to point out that there were good arguments that could be made for rejecting the amendment.’
Grieve’s amendment called on May to announce within three days – rather than the three weeks she was allowed under the rules – her Plan B for Brexit if MPs rejected her deal on January 15.
The object of the amendment, say insiders, was to give MPs as much time as possible to debate the new Plan B, rather than allowing the Government to ‘run down the clock’ until the then Brexit date of March 29.
The next day, Bercow ruled that he had decided to go ahead with a vote on the amendment – and all hell broke loose. ‘That changed everything,’ says one former Cabinet Minister.
‘That was when he really stepped into the fray and tried to redo things in a way that he had no real authority to do.’
Within minutes, rumours that Bercow had ignored the advice of the Clerks of the House, whose job is to provide expert guidance on parliamentary procedure, were flying round Westminster.
‘There was this massive row where the Deputy Speakers and the Clerks said, “You can’t allow this,” says an insider who spoke to one of the Clerks involved.
‘Bercow said, basically, “I don’t give a f***. I’m going to do what I want”, and stormed out.’
In the House itself the decision triggered a spectacular set-to between irate Tory MPs and Bercow. Over the course of an hour, the Speaker defended his decision, taking points of order from raging backbenchers.
‘I have been here for 18 years and I have never known any Speaker to overrule a motion of the House of Commons,’ said one, Mark Francois.
Another, Crispin Blunt, said many MPs now had an ‘unshakable conviction’ that the Speaker was ‘no longer neutral’.
Defiantly, Bercow declared: ‘If we were guided only by precedent, nothing would ever change.’
But a Tory Minister says: ‘He has no care for the consequences of what he’s doing. He’s doing it because he’s motivated by dislike of government… and he does it because it’s all about him.’
Seventeen rebels voted in favour of the Grieve amendment, which was passed by 308 to 297. May expressed her surprise at Bercow’s decision, saying: ‘Members of Parliament need to know that there is a set of rules in the House of Commons; they need to know that there will be a consistent interpretation of those rules so that they know how they can operate within the House.’ Julian Lewis MP wrote to his old friend. He told the Speaker that his legacy had centred on being on the side of Parliament against the executive, but he now risked being on the side of Parliament against the people.
Sally made Bridget Jones look a paragon of restraint
John Bercow’s wife Sally has proved to be an equally controversial figure in the national life of Britain.
Bercow’s friend Julian Lewis MP, spotting the young Sally Illman at a Conservative students’ conference in 1989, poked Bercow in the ribs.
‘That’s the most beautiful girl at this conference,’ he said. During a disco later, the friends danced with their new acquaintance. ‘It was fairly obvious she was much more interested in John,’ says Lewis.
‘I don’t think I ought to detail anything more about the remainder of that evening,’ he continues. ‘It’s fair to conclude that they got together on that first occasion in a significant way.’
Sally had attended Marlborough College but later said: ‘I didn’t really fit in with those girls in Alice bands and everyone coming from a house with a long drive.’ She then dropped out of Oxford and worked in PR.
Not long after they got together, Sally accompanied Bercow to constituency events as he began campaigning to become an MP. Initially, Bercow was largely unaware that Sally was, as she puts it, ‘an alkie’.
‘We were apart for long periods and I just didn’t know. When we went to the pub, she drank more than I did,’ he said in 2010.
For her part, Sally said: ‘With alcoholics, you think of people who have gin over breakfast. I wasn’t like that. But I think formally I would be called an alcoholic.’
She stopped drinking in 2001 after attending Alcoholics Anonymous, taking it up again years later. In the last week of June 2002, Bercow had proposed to her at a restaurant near Parliament.
So in love was he, it’s said that he sold his Buckinghamshire cottage, his home for four years, because of its low ceilings and doorways. He stands 5ft 6in while Sally is 5ft 11in.
The couple married later that year in the Commons crypt. Six months after Bercow became Speaker, his wife gave her first media interview and spoke about her days at university, her struggles with alcohol and her relationship with her husband.
Such was her candidness that the interviewer, Anne McElvoy, questioned how the conservative Bercow got together with a woman ‘who makes Bridget Jones seem a paragon of restraint’.
In February 2011, Sally contributed to a newspaper article in which she described how ‘sexy’ she found living under Big Ben. The article was accompanied by a picture of her wearing a bed-sheet, looking out of their living quarters over the Thames.
Sally had told the broadcaster Iain Dale of the article and he asked what her husband made of it.
‘Oh, I haven’t told him. Do you think I ought to?’ she responded. Dale says: ‘I think his reaction was pretty volcanic.
She just seemed to have no idea that this could be quite detrimental to him.’ Sally later said: ‘When I told my husband that I posed in a bedsheet, he kind of hit the roof. I really genuinely didn’t expect the furore that it caused, but because of who I’m married to, it’s not acceptable – apparently. Well, sorry, no, I’m an individual in my own right. I am not my husband.’
Long previously, she had renounced her Conservative sympathies and come out as a dyed-in-the-wool Blairite.
Several years into Bercow’s Speakership, their marriage was going through perhaps its most difficult phase. Sally had also been seduced by the lure of fame.
‘It did go to her head a bit,’ says family friend and MP Gillian Keegan. ‘Becoming a public figure is a big deal.’
In 2015, it emerged that she had been having an affair with her husband’s cousin, Alan, a commercial litigation lawyer.
She had moved out to a mews house in Battersea, where Alan joined her while Bercow was campaigning for the General Election.
The affair was said to have lasted for almost a year. The pair bonded over ‘a mutual appreciation of fine wine’, it has been reported.
But the Bercows decided to try to save their marriage and Sally moved back to the Palace of Westminster. The Bercows have always felt their marriage is worth fighting for.
‘We’ve had periods of turbulence,’ Bercow understatedly said last year. ‘I didn’t feel a great certainty, but I thought it was worth trying. I do [love her a lot], and I’m happier together than apart.’
Bercow’s actions would now be subject to renewed scrutiny.
As a result of the Grieve ruling, reports began to circulate that the Government would not now send Bercow to the House of Lords after he stepped down as Speaker – a time-honoured convention.
‘I can’t imagine we would look favourably on those who’ve cheated centuries of procedure,’ said a Cabinet source. Bercow’s personal relationships would also come under the microscope.
A picture of him dining with anti-Brexit Tory veteran Kenneth Clarke at a tandoori house in South London in February 2019 led to accusations of a ‘poppadom plot’.
Describing the reporting as ‘gullible’, Clarke says he often visits the restaurant with Bercow. ‘I don’t deny it. We’re both very political animals,’ he adds.
‘We spend a very high proportion of the time talking about politics, but it’s not in any purposeful plotty way. It’s just very enjoyable, long political chat between two fairly obsessive political addicts.’
A Labour MP who voted Remain says: ‘On the issue of Brexit, he [Bercow] is not even-handed, far from it, and he has in part created this bloody impasse and mess that the country found itself in.’
But Hilary Benn, the former Labour Minister, disagrees. ‘He has come down on the side of the House of Commons being able to debate something, to consider a proposition, then it’s up to the House whether to pass it or not,’ he argues.
The strength of Bercow’s condemnation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt, last October, to prorogue Parliament [and thus narrow the timeline available to MPs to rein Johnson in] was his last throw of the dice.
Despite being on holiday hundreds of miles away in Turkey, Bercow had released a statement within an hour: ‘This move represents a constitutional outrage. However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country.’
He added: ‘At this early stage in his premiership, the Prime Minister should be seeking to establish rather than undermine his democratic credentials.’
The strength of Bercow’s words was considered unconstitutional by his critics.
‘That annoyed some: they said it wasn’t for me to pronounce. But if the Speaker doesn’t speak up for Parliament, it’s hard to know who does,’ he told an interviewer later.
Andrea Leadsom, the former Business Secretary, who had served as the Speaker’s sparring partner for the previous 12 months, had already confirmed that the Tories would run a candidate against him in Buckingham at the next General Election.
‘Bring back an impartial Speaker,’ she said. Bercow has argued that his only bias is towards the House of Commons itself, over any particular party or cause.
Indeed, the Speaker’s procedural creativity helped facilitate parliamentary debate at a time of impasse, and he was far from the only stakeholder guilty of deviating from convention.
But if he were able to contain his views on Brexit, it would be easier to defend him. In a perfect illustration of this argument, just days after stepping down as Speaker last autumn, Bercow described Brexit as ‘the biggest foreign policy mistake in the post-war period’.
Few were surprised – but for those who had defended Bercow against charges of partiality, such proclamations undermined the cause.
While his forceful approach as Speaker could keep in check dissenting MPs, his divisive manner often exacerbated existing tensions in the Chamber, particularly during the final 12 months of his time in the chair.
And the most concerning aspect of his personality relates to accusations of bullying – particularly when it came to members of staff. While Labour MPs defended him, those allegedly on the receiving end were coming forward to talk about their ordeals.
There are two sides to every story, but the number of people who had experiences of this nature with Bercow is notable. There is also a damning consistency across the accounts. T he fact that the bullying allegations were put on ice in the name of Brexit is of great shame to the Labour Party and many of its MPs.
Likewise, his detractors on the Conservative benches did themselves and the alleged victims no favours by using the accusations for their own ends. For too many of them, the protection of members of staff was not the motivating factor.
In these muddied waters, Bercow was able to survive for as long as he did. Even his resignation was confrontational. He announced that, bar a General Election being called prior to this date, he would stand down on October 31, 2019 – the day the UK was due to leave the EU.
He said: ‘Throughout my time as Speaker I have sought to increase the relative authority of this legislature, for which I will make absolutely no apology to anyone, anywhere, at any time.’
Breaking into tears, Bercow thanked his team in Speaker’s House, the wider Commons staff and his family. ‘From the bottom of my heart, I thank them all profusely.’
He concluded: ‘This has been – let me put it explicitly – the greatest privilege and honour of my professional life, for which I will be eternally grateful.’ More than an hour of points of order followed, during which MPs from across the House paid tribute to the Speaker.
Twelve Labour MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn, spoke, and six Conservatives. Among them was Michael Gove, who said Bercow’s ‘energetic efforts’ are appreciated by ‘those of us who may not always be the best behaved in class’.
Farcical scenes followed into the early hours, as the Queen’s representative arrived to shut down the Commons, as per the rules of prorogation.
Bercow condemned what was about to take place: ‘This is not a normal prorogation. It is not typical. It is not standard.’
Earlier in the proceedings, he had lambasted Tory MP Graham Stuart for heckling from the backbenches. ‘Mr Stuart, if you do not like it, you are perfectly entitled to your view. I could not give a flying flamingo what your view is!’
Every story needs a hero and a villain.
John Bercow’s unique attribute is that he could appear to play both at the same time.
Abridged extract from John Bercow: Call To Order, by Sebastian Whale, published by Biteback at £20. Offer price £13.50 (33 per cent discount) until April 30. To order, go to mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155. Free delivery on all orders – no minimum spend.