NEWS & ANALYSIS

How to be Speaker

Andrew Donaldson contrasts the exit interviews of John Bercow and Baleka Mbete

A FAMOUS GROUSE

WHEN Sir Lindsay Hoyle was elected as Speaker of the House of Commons last week, he was physically dragged from the Labour benches to the chair by fellow MPs, a quaint tradition that has endured over the centuries and dates back to when the Speaker had to communicate to the monarch the sentiment of the Commons. 

If the message was disagreeable, the Speaker would sometimes be put to death — hence the persuasion to accept the post.

They don’t execute the Speaker nowadays. But there are nevertheless many MPs and other commentators who would have relished the spectacle of Hoyle’s predecessor, John Bercow, being dragged from the chair and, if not hanged, then certainly stifled.

Bercow is one of the UK’s most well-known and popular public figures. As a result of Brexit, Prime Minister’s Questions, whether for Theresa May or Boris Johnson, became a hit feature on BBC Parliament, and the channel’s ratings have rocketed, thanks in no small part to the diminutive Bercow’s flamboyant oratorial style. 

He certainly does like to speak, make no mistake about that. According to Hansard figures, in 2009, his first year on the job, Bercow spoke 0.5% of all the words uttered in the House. This was twice as much as his predecessor, Michael Martin (now Baron Martin). By the time of his retirement, Bercow’s contribution had risen to 2.5% of all that was said in the chamber, a five-fold increase in guff from the chair.

But what classy guff.

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He has reportedly brought words to Parliament that have not been used by any Speaker since 1916, the earliest date that transcripts of debates are available on the House of Commons website. As one MP put it, “It’s as if he goes to bed every night, reads a thesaurus, inwardly digests it and then spews it out the next day.”

One personal favourite is “chuntering”, often used to admonish braying backbenchers holding forth in “a sedentary position”. Other words included “Demosthenian”, “Einsteinian”, “jackanapes”, ”susurrations” and, memorably on one occasion, “testicle”.

The latter referred to a comment made by the prime minister at the Tory conference early last month. “If Parliament were a reality TV show,” Johnson told his supporters, “then the whole lot of us I’m afraid would have been voted out of the jungle by now. But at least we would have the consolation of a Speaker being forced to eat a kangaroo testicle.”

The following day, Bercow, who was experiencing problems which had reduced his usual bellow to a croak, responded, “I just wanted to take the opportunity to confirm to the House that the state of my throat — which is purely temporary — is not down to the consumption of a kangaroo’s testicle. I wouldn’t eat it, it would probably be poisoned.” 

He is not joking. While he is something of a media star beyond these shores, Bercow is loathed and despised by Little England. The press here have been particularly vicious, with posh Toryboy columnist Quentin Letts leading the fray. Summing up his career, Letts wrote in The Times:

“John Bercow did not just sit in the Commons chair. He throbbed in it, scowling, plotting, pulsating. When this complex, mercurial little man was on his throne, MPs could never relax. Bercow was a cat with a twisting tail. At any moment he could lash out and claw the unsuspecting bystander…

“Did he not bring life to the old place? Well, yes, in the way that the high whine of a drill can quicken pulses in a dentist’s waiting room. He revived the gambit of the urgent question. He did not hesitate to tell ministers when he felt they had been discourteous to the House. But it will be his own discourtesy, that foot-stamping, red-eyed bateyness, that will serve as the epitaph to this unedifying Speakership.”

In September, the Daily Telegraph reported that government was set to break with 250 years of precedent and refuse to offer Bercow a peerage after he stood down as Speaker. One unnamed source told the newspaper, “He has been dogged by controversy about his alleged bullying behaviour, he has undermined faith in politics and there is no intention on our side to nominate him for a peerage. If Labour want to reward him with a peerage for services to Labour they are welcome to try.”

There must be more to such rancour than having annoyed Brexiteers by appearing to frustrate the EU withdrawal process as Speaker or being short and stroppy, and when he addressed a Foreign Press Association in London briefing in London on Wednesday, I asked if he could explain why he was so despised.

The short answer was that, when he was elected as Speaker, he became a member of the establishment — but he wasn’t chosen by the establishment. This despite the fact that he had been a Tory MP since 1997. 

But Bercow doesn’t do short answers, and so continued:

“At the time there was a general sense that it was probably the turn of the Conservative side of the House to have a Speaker. There had been two Labour Speakers in succession, so there was a general sense, quite widely shared by Labour MPs, that there should be a Conservative Speaker. The Conservative Party didn’t have an official candidate. That doesn’t happen in Speakership elections in our country — perhaps it does elsewhere, I don’t know — but it’s no secret that David Cameron, for example, wanted either sir George Young, a former Conservative cabinet minister and like David, an old Etonian, to become speaker, or Sir Alan Haselhurst, a very respected and long-serving Deputy Speaker … at that point for 12 years. David wanted one or other of those and I think it was broadly true that David Cameron’s attitude was ABB. ABB. I repeat, ABB. Anybody But Bercow!

“Famously, well, famously to me, Sadiq Khan tells me — he was then Labour MP for Tooting, not the mayor of London — that he bumped into David Cameron in the loo who said to him, ‘Hi Sadiq, who’re you voting for to be Speaker?’ And Sadiq said, ‘David, I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime. For the first time in my life I’m going to vote conservative, I’m going to vote for John Bercow.’ To which David Cameron apparently replied, ‘He doesn’t count.’

“So there was very strong hostility to me from the conservative establishment, if you will, and that I think percolated through to and was articulated in the predominantly conservative press. I think you could then add … [that] I’ve sometimes made decisions and given rulings that have been thought unhelpful by the government to the government. A predominantly Conservative leader has thought me a pain in the neck. And so that’s why they’ve tended to be rude and abusive. 

“Now are there other factors involved? Well, look. . .  snobbery is a fact of life. It’s a fact of life in all countries. I remember being told at the time that one Conservative MP said to someone who was going to vote for me, ‘When [a Speaker came from] the Labour Party [it was] . . .  rather expected that, harrumph, he be a working class chap, to be expected, to be expected, absolutely true, working class chap. But when we Conservatives have a Speaker, well, not to put too fine a point to it, well, we’d want a gentleman in the chair. The trouble with Bercow is that he’s an oik.’”

Bercow is the son of a London taxi driver. As he put it, “You know a working glass bloke with an ordinary background.” 

But there may have been other prejudices, he said. Pointing to his record on LGBT rights, he revealed that another Tory MP had told a friend: “I’d never dream of voting for Bercow. I’ve never forgiven him for supporting the poofters.” This reactionary attitude, he said, was just “astonishing” in 2009.

He is, as he explained, a bit of a Marmite character. You either like him or you don’t. 

Another former Speaker who is also a but of a Marmite character is our own Baleka Mbete. She too has been getting the short end of the stick from the commentariat following her recent lamentable performance on Al Jazeera’s Head to Head programme, which was filmed before a live audience at the Oxford Union. For want of anything better, it’s perhaps instructive that we contrast the two styles of Speakership and perhaps some sort of “How To Best Do The Job” guide may emerge.

Both Bercow and Mbete have been attacked over lack of impartiality. Both have denied the charges. 

“Is it hard to remain neutral? I genuinely don’t think it is,” Bercow said, “and I think that I am, and have been. As I’ve said earlier, I’m impartial within the chamber but impartial about the chamber… I will assert to anyone who will listen to my dying day that I have been impartial in the chair, pro parliament and impartial in the chair.”

In terms of House of Commons procedures, Bercow had to resign his Tory membership when becoming Speaker. Mbete served as Speaker in the National Assembly from May 21, 2014, until May this year. She remained a member of the ruling party and was, until December 18, 2017, the ANC’s national chairperson. Consider then this exchange between Mbete and Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan:

“Do you believe you were a neutral, impartial Speaker?”

“I was.”

“Then why is it that you, as a neutral, impartial speaker, you had to apologise for calling an opposition leader, Julius Malema, a ‘cockroach’ at an ANC rally? Is that a neutral, impartial term in referencing—”

Mbete replied that she did not use the term in Parliament.

“Oh,” Hasan said, “so you were only neutral in parliament? Once you stepped outside of parliament you were—”

“I said that in a political context. I was in the North West at, listen—”

“So why did you apologise? You don't sound very apologetic today.”

“Because it was not correct for me to call another person a cockroach, whether they were ANC—”

“I’m glad we can agree on that.”

Which raises the matter of personal insults in the chambers. 

“The protection of free speech is important,” Bercow said, “and, as I say … I think ad hominem attacks are disagreeable and we should try to disagree agreeably.”

With Mbete it was fisticuffs and goons dressed as waiters having to wade into MPs to restore order. As Hasan pointed out to her, “This happened on your watch, hence these questions. So, for example, back in 2017 your ANC colleague Pravin Gordhan was sacked as finance minister by then-President Jacob Zuma. [Gordhan] said at the time that R150-billion to R250-billion had been looted from the state. Why didn’t you speak out at the time and join with him to call out that looting?”

“I was right there, Mehdi,” Mbete replied, “and we were discussing these issues every day at that time, we were seized with them. That is why we decided we need for these things to be investigated, and we need for it to happen publicly in the open so that we get to know what exactly is the problem, who—”

“But you’re implying that no one knew anything, that we’re just discovering this now. The state capture… this idea that associates of the president and other powerful people took over utility companies, energy companies, state institutions, that happened in full view of everyone's eyes.”

“Actually not. Things were not happening in full view of everybody.”

“The finance minister disagrees with you.”

“There are many issues I’m learning for the first time … in the past few months,” Mbete replied.

“In terms of corruption?”

“In terms of how bad things were.”

Which brings us, in closing, to the future and the possible solutions to the mess in both countries. Mbete, naturally, appears possessed of the optimism that only comes with very little learning. For his last question, Hasan quoted the late Chris Hani: “He said in October 1992, ‘What I fear is that the liberators emerge as elitists who drive around in Mercedes Benzes and use the resources of this country to live in palaces and gather riches.’ Was he rather prophetically describing the South Africa of 2019, the ANC?”

“To a certain extent,” Mbete said. “To a certain extent, yes, as we’ve been finding out about the kind of things that some of us, some of are our people have been doing, and I'm saying, it’s not a bad thing that that is coming out, it’s actually a good thing because then only can we address it.”

As for Brexit, Bercow believes it is a disaster. 

“I’m no longer the Speaker,” he said, “I don’t have to remain impartial now, and if you were to ask me, honestly, do I think that Brexit is good for our global standing, the honest answer is no, I don’t. I think that Brexit is the biggest foreign policy mistake in the post-war period.”

Getting it “done”, as Boris Johnson enthusiastically puts it, is going to take time. A very long time.

“What we are dealing with at the moment … is Phase One of Brexit, the attempt to secure agreement to, and legislative passage of, the withdrawal agreement. There is then trade negotiations with the EU, trade negotiations with the rest of the world, security cooperation, and lastly other matters of public policy, so what I say to you is we will be debating and discussing as a country, not just in parliament, the matter of Brexit, with total certainty, I say to you, we will be debating it, for at least the next five years, very probably for the next ten, and quite conceivably for the next fifteen.

“That is not to make an argument in support of Brexit, or somewhere in between, or against Brexit, it is simply a statement of what I believe to be a fact. And if I may say politely to the august and illustrious representatives of the foreign press and their various media outlets, it seems to me to be so blindingly obvious, so blindingly obvious, that only an extraordinarily clever and sophisticated person could fail to grasp it.”

Like I said, the guy can talk.