Lead book review

Unspeakably prolix and petty: will anyone want to read John Bercow’s autobiography?

In his autobiography, John Bercow takes his peerage as a given. But that might be scuppered by accusations of bullying, says Lynn Barber

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

Unspeakable: The Autobiography John Bercow

Weidenfeld, pp.464, £20

John Bercow obviously intended his book to annoy people, and he’s certainly succeeded in that. MPs who don’t find their names in the index can generally count themselves lucky. He just loves pouring shit over other politicians, especially Tories. He finds David Cameron ‘an opportunist lightweight, sniffy, supercilious and deeply snobbish’; Theresa May ‘as wooden as your average coffee table’; Michael Gove ‘prone to oleaginous flattery’; Amber Rudd ‘all gong and no dinner’; Michael Howard ‘a decidedly cold fish’. But the one for whom he seems to feel the most durable animus is, rather oddly, William Hague — ‘robotic, cold and uninspiring’, ‘geeky, frankly a bit weird’ and guilty of a ‘rather shallow careerism’.

So which MPs does he like? Well, ‘as it happens, I like Boris Johnson. He can be charming and witty.’ And better still, Bercow beat him at tennis, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. He finds Jeremy Corbyn ‘decent to the core’ and has a huge admiration for Gordon Brown, who invited him and his family to stay at his Scottish home and cooked fish fingers for the children. He also admires Ken Clarke, and has a soft spot for Ann Widdecombe, while he is positively glowing about Jacob Rees-Mogg.

What does this very mixed bunch of likes and dislikes tell us? That he prefers rebels to conformists. That he hates snobs. That he has a particular aversion to people who are ‘cold’. He could never be accused of that — he is passionately emotional, sometimes almost laughably so. He describes himself as ‘rat-like and somewhat intense’, and admits that when he plays the tape of his first conference speech ‘I came across as a man possessed, swivel-eyed and somewhat alarming’. He says more than once (but then he says most things more than once) that he never had any hang-up about being short, but he was terribly bothered by acne as a teenager and was known as Crater Face at school.

He grew up in the north London suburbs where his father was a second-hand car dealer and minicab driver. He was not much good at school (though he did get a highly commended for tap-dancing), but his mother took him for tennis lessons and he quickly rose to become Under-l2s County Champion. But then he began suffering from asthma and had to give up tennis for a while.

His parents had divorced by then and, when he visited his father on Sundays, they mainly talked about politics. His father was an ultra Conservative hanger-flogger, with a huge admiration for Enoch Powell — which seems odd given that he was the son of Jewish–Romanian immigrants called Bercowich — but Bercow absorbed his ideas and joined the Monday Club. He now says that that was the most shameful decision he has ever made — ‘a Jewish boy …sidling up to racists’ — but then adds, in a rare moment of introspection: ‘I have sometimes wondered whether my own physical inadequacies led me to embrace such an aggressive, macho, control-oriented politics.’ Yes indeedy.

Anyway, his shameful stint with the Monday Club did produce one good result: Harvey Proctor persuaded him to apply to university. He had done very badly in his A-levels and had decided to earn his living as a tennis coach, but Proctor advised him that if he hoped ever to be an MP he really should get a degree. So he re-sat his A-levels, went to Essex, which he loved, and got a First in Government. He chaired the University Conservative Association, then worked as a spad, first for Jonathan Aitken, then Ken Clarke, and got himself on the Tory candidates’ list.

He stood for two unwinnable seats (Motherwell and Bristol South) before bagging the ultra-safe seat of Buckingham in 1997. (He actually hired a helicopter at a cost of £1,000 to get him to the selection meeting on time.) He was in the shadow cabinet for 14 months under Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, but fell out with all of them and rightly concluded he was ‘not a team player’ and would be better off on the back benches. He liked making attacking speeches — which Tony Blair described as ‘nasty and ineffectual in equal quantities’.

Meanwhile, he was in a relationship with Sally Illman, which lasted 13 years before they finally married in 2002. They first met when she was at Oxford and a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association, and he went out with her for a bit but decided that she was ‘just too wild and unpredictable for me’. But they remained friends, and she helped him campaign for Buckingham, despite the fact that she was a Labour supporter by then.

He admits that their marriage has had its rocky moments. She embarrassed him by posing for the press in a bedsheet and more recently by sporting a ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker in her car; she also had an affair with his cousin, which left him ‘disappointed, hurt and miserable’. But they are still together and he thanks her warmly for her friendship, support and encouragement over the years.

It was Sally who encouraged him to think of becoming Speaker. They went to a reception at Speakers’ House in 2003 and thought it was a nice gaff. He joined the Speakers’ Panel of Chairs, which was the usual apprenticeship, and enjoyed it. But he had to wait to stand till the MPs’ expenses scandal forced Michael Martin to resign in 2009. By then he was 46, and ‘had mellowed from the shrill right-winger of l997 to the moderate, centre-ground, humanitarian Tory of 2009’. Margaret Beckett was the bookies’ favourite, but he won. He reckons he got far more support from Labour and Lib Dem MPs than from Tories, who generally disliked him. He says he encountered quite a lot of anti-Semitism from Tories, whereas he never did from Labour.

He claims that he is ‘distinctly old-fashioned’ and didn’t even own a mobile phone when he was elected. He wrote his book by hand and Sally typed it. But he was very much a modernising Speaker, who managed to speed up PM’s Questions, allowed many more Urgent Questions, encouraged diversity and introduced a nursery and an outreach and education programme. As Speaker, he was meant to spend a minimum of three hours in the Chair, but he often stayed much longer than that — ten hours a day during some of the Brexit debates — sustained by cashew nuts and water. He enjoyed the fame the Brexit debates brought him — people often ask him for selfies or shout ‘Order, Order’ when they see him in the street. Sally and their three children are also apt to shout ‘Order!’ when he tells them to tidy up.

He was meant to retire in 2018 but decided to stay to see Brexit through. In his epilogue, Bercow obviously takes his peerage as a given — ‘I hope to contribute usefully in the House of Lords’ — but that might now be scuppered by all the accusations of bullying. They were first made in two Newsnight programmes in 2017, but then revived by Andrea Leadsom, ‘whose near-pathological hatred of me was well known’. He called her ‘stupid’ and she claims he reduced her to tears. And of course there have been more accusations since, from Angus Sinclair, his former private secretary, from Lord Lisvane, a former Clerk of the House, and from Lieutenant General David Leakey, a former Black Rod.

Bercow barely mentions either of them in his book, though he does admit that he had many disagreements with the clerks, whom he found over-cautious. And his manner — which he calls ‘intense’ and other people call shouting — could easily seem like bullying. He bangs on and on, fearless of repeating himself. He says that his father would never use one word when 100 would do and ‘I have inherited that prolixity’.

Quite. This would be a better book if it were 100 pages shorter, but I still can’t imagine who would buy it.

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