The Marlborough connection with the remarkable Mr Speaker Bercow
Gerald Isaaman reviews BERCOW – MR SPEAKER by Bobby Friedman (Gibson Square, £17.99)
My MP, the elegantly tall Tory Claire Perry, confronted John Bercow, the miniature man now Mr Speaker, in the Commons tearoom and offered him a surprising sexual delight, to ensure he might call her when she stood up on the green benches.
When the inevitable scandal hit the headlines, not only was she praised for her effrontery, but she claimed that Bercow thought it all hilarious. And Claire declared: “He’s doing a good job – all that stuff about the anti-Speaker campaign is rubbish!”
Bobby Friedman’s compelling biography, sub-headed Rowdy Living in the Tory Party, was completed before this episode happened last month. Yet, remarkably, his opening chapter presents David Cameron standing in a Commons urinal next to a Labour MP and telling him explicitly: “John Bercow doesn’t count.”
All this lewdness is perhaps unfitting in discussing the youngest ever Speaker in Commons’ history or his 14 years as Tory MP for the safe seat of Buckingham, who, more than anything, has tried to tame extravagant excesses – and silly boy antics -- of his parliamentary colleagues.
But it does indeed indicate the passions he rouses within and without his party, the more so because he is brave and vociferous and, more importantly, has undergone an amazing political conversion from arch right-winger wanting to repatriate immigrants to calling for more black and Asian MPs.
He stands out, if nothing else, as someone unafraid to expose the worst of political prejudices and fight for a better, if not necessarily big, society, a formidable champion indeed.
Moreover, he has an amazing wife, Sally, who experimented smoking cannabis while a pupil at Marlborough College. Cameron’s wife Samantha was there are the same time –no guilt by association of course, the more so since Sally wants to become a Labour MP, even party leader.
All of which is a long way from Bercow’s Romanian grandfather, Jack Bercowitch, who escaped anti-semitism to arrive in London at the turn of the last century and become a furrier in Spitalfields. And a long way too from Bercow’s own father, Charles, once a car salesman in London’s once notorious Warren Street, and his non-Jewish wife, Brenda Bailey, a secretary to a legal firm when they met.
Growing up in the North London suburbs, including Margaret Thatcher’s Finchley, young Bercow proved himself a precocious, acne-suffering tiny tot who accepted the “Jew boy” taunts of his school bullies, fighting back with dazzling wit that left them daunted.
He proved himself a tennis ace before politics ruled his ambitions, announcing to his detractors that he would end up in the Cabinet. His talent – and his determination – were steadfast as he headed for Essex University, the chairmanship of the Federation of Conservative Students and a banking job in the City.
BBC political journalist Bobby Friedman, 26, himself a former president of the Students ‘ Union at Cambridge, insists that his biography is neither a hatchet job nor a hagiography.
“People know that they’re reading a book that aims to be scrupulously fair,” he told me. “The reader also knows that everything that’s in it is there on merit.”
He found it an advantage that Bercow refused to co-operate, though not preventing a total of more than friends and contacts talking to him. “They were able to speak more freely and open up, letting me in on the previously unknown stories they had of John and of politics,” he explained.
That was after he chose Bercow as his subject because he always attracted a media frenzy, especially in the run-up to him becoming Speaker. “John is fascinating – his life is a goldmine of great stories, strong emotions and funny anecdotes,” said Friedman.
“As a biographer, it’s incredibly rewarding to have a subject always invoking strong emotion and making waves. John does that in abundance.”
In a wider context, his biography tells the story of a dramatically changing Tory Party following its 1997 defeat by New Labour, how it struggled to revive itself during a period when Bercow went so far left as to resign from the Shadow Cabinet over a three-line whip, to vote against gay adoption.
“The tipping point for John came when he realised that there needed to be a process of change,” he added. “Like any politician, there was an element of expediency, but there has been an undeniable wholesale shift in his views.”
That alienated him from the Tory front bench and brought about the unsuccessful bid to prevent Bercow becoming Speaker. Yet Bercow continued undaunted, aided in particular by his dazzling wife Sally.
“John’s political transformation, which is perhaps the most remarkable of a generation, was in train long before he and Sally were married,” Friedman pointed out. “But there’s no doubt, though, of how close they are. There’s no doubt that in more recent times Sally’s advice has been an important factor.
“He is a real political character, one of the few left, more’s the pity – and there is plenty more to be had from him.”
The biography very much reflects today’s parliamentary circus where politicians have demoted themselves because of their own cowardly indiscretions and public confidence is shattered.
The result is that we have a sound-bite system that means nothing, the politicians failing to recognise that the electorate are crying out for a fairer system fit for purpose, one in which they can put their trust, instead of being preached too by people out of touch with their desires.
That’s why Speaker Bercow, despite his diminutive nature, does stand above the crowd.