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John Bercow: From Tory MP and Commons Speaker to joining the Labour Party

By PA News

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John Bercow spent more than 10 years in the limelight as Speaker of the House of Commons.

The one-time Conservative MP for Buckingham, with a high-profile Labour-supporting wife, made a catalogue of unconventional comments during his decade in the Speaker’s chair from 2009.

He survived attempts to remove him from the chair, including from former colleagues in the Tory party, revelations about his expenses and allegations of bullying – which he denied.

John Bercow (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
John Bercow (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

It is perhaps his interventions in the Brexit crisis, and the relish with which he seemed to make them, that people may remember most.

Regular Parliament watchers may recall his inimitable style, such as his bellowing shouts of “order” and “division, clear the lobby” – quirks that brought him international attention when the eyes of the world became fixed on the Commons throughout 2019.

As the Brexit debate raged and senior opposition figures played every trick in the parliamentary book to prevent the governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson from pursuing their preferred policies, Mr Bercow drew the ire of hardline Eurosceptics for perceived bias.

After he allowed an amendment by Tory rebel Dominic Grieve to be voted on, he was labelled “Speaker of the Devil” by one newspaper, while the Daily Mail called him an “egotistical preening popinjay (who) has shamelessly put his anti-Brexit bias before the national interest – and is a disgrace to his office”.

He voted Remain, discussing it candidly with a group of students, but in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica denied this meant he had lost his impartiality.

John Bercow holding a Question and Answer session with students from Yale Sixth Form College in North Wales in Portcullis House in the Houses of Parliament (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
John Bercow holding a Question and Answer session with students from Yale Sixth Form College in North Wales in Portcullis House in the Houses of Parliament (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“If I’m biased, I’m biased in favour of Parliament. Parliament being heard. Parliament having a right to speak. Parliament having time. Parliament being respected by the government of the day and indeed by the opposition,” he said.

After being elected as the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons in June 2009, he delivered many caustic put-downs, earning him both loathing and appreciative laughter from MPs.

He had a fractious relationship with former Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom after he was accused of calling her a “stupid woman”.

In January 2017, he was caught on microphone warning Sir Michael Fallon it would be “stupid” to pick a fight with a senior MP.

He made the unguarded comment after the then defence secretary had been grilled about reports that a Trident ballistic missile veered off course during a test firing.

He admonished MPs for repeatedly asking for a tea break or whether they could use the toilet during a long-running Brexit debate.

John Bercow going through his daily routine of preparing to preside over the day’s events in the chamber of the House of Commons (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
John Bercow going through his daily routine of preparing to preside over the day’s events in the chamber of the House of Commons (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

His decision to strip parliamentary officials of their traditional wigs in 2017 was met with disapproval from a number of MPs.

In his last few years as Speaker, he faced scrutiny of his expenses.

In November 2015, it was revealed he had spent almost £20,000 of taxpayers’ money to fly to a conference in Japan with an aide.

In February 2016, a PA news agency freedom of information request revealed that he spent thousands of pounds wining and dining fellow MPs, plus almost £2,000 on a dinner with his Australian counterpart and hundreds of pounds to tune the grand piano in his apartments.

His office argued that the overall expenditure of the Speaker’s Office had fallen during his tenure, from £626,029 in 2009/10 to £504,737 in 2015/16.

In February 2020, Mr Bercow was strongly rebuked by the House of Commons authorities for naming members of staff without their permission in his autobiography.

In a highly unusual move, a spokesman for the House said it was “unacceptable” for Mr Bercow to publicly identify current and former staff – particularly for “the purpose of financial gain or commercial success”.

John Bercow (Jonathan Brady/PA)
John Bercow (Jonathan Brady/PA)

A spokesman for Mr Bercow strongly defended his actions, saying he was entitled to address “unfounded” allegations made by a small but “highly vocal” group of people who were trying to “blacken his name”.

Born on January 19 1963, the son of a Jewish taxi driver, Mr Bercow went to school in Margaret Thatcher’s Finchley constituency and first got involved in politics as a teenager.

He attended Essex University, where he gained a reputation as something of a firebrand, and became a member of the hardline Tory Monday Club, notorious for its “hang Nelson Mandela” slogans, joining its Immigration and Repatriation Committee.

At the age of 20, he left the pressure group, saying some of its members’ views about immigration were “unpalatable”.

After a short spell at Hambros Bank, Mr Bercow embarked on a career as a lobbyist, serving as a councillor in Lambeth, south London, at the same time.

At the 1992 general election, he stood unsuccessfully against Labour’s Dawn Primarolo in Bristol South.

Three years later, he went into politics full-time, becoming special adviser to chief secretary to the treasury Jonathan Aitken until his resignation, and then to heritage secretary Virginia Bottomley.

Mr Bercow finally secured a berth in the safe seat of Buckingham, and, despite Labour’s landslide victory, entered Parliament at the 1997 general election.

He was made shadow chief secretary when Iain Duncan Smith became Tory leader in 2001 before quitting the Conservative front bench in November 2002.

In June 2021, Mr Bercow said he had switched allegiances to join the Labour Party.

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