By Sam Macrory - 7th June 2011
Sally is my wife, but not my chattel or my property. The duty of impartiality doesn’t extend to her – there isn’t a Mrs Speaker – and it’s a spectacularly sexist idea that Sally should have to be silent.
Westminster has been noticeably short of stories about John Bercow recently. So without a regular fix of tales of disgruntled Tory plots, Sally Bercow outbursts, and acerbic prime ministerial put-downs, what better way to spend an evening than head to a North London to see the Speaker of the Commons take to the stage.
Bercow was the star guest at the latest round of Steve Richards’ highly-recommended Rock and Roll Politics series, with the Independent’s chief political commentator pacing the stage to give a wide-ranging political run-down, unveil an impressive range of Bremnerish impressions (though Bercow later edged him with an unsettlingly accurate Tony Benn), and then take to a comfy armchair for a lengthy chat with the Speaker.
This was never going to be a Paxman-esque grilling: the pair clearly get on well and Richards' style is far from abrasive. But the relaxed format saw Bercow chat freely on a number of subjects which previous speakers would never have spoken publicly on, or ever been asked about.
Bercow on super injunctions
Most topical was the ongoing row over super-injunctions, and in particular Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming’s spectacular decision to name Manchester United winger Ryan Giggs as the man hiding a not-so-secret secret.
Bercow confirmed that he had been telling colleagues that “no super-injunction should be preventing colleagues from trying to debate issues”, before noting that “it would be very sad if the sovereign nature of Parliament as a whole and the House of Commons in particular was eroded by the judiciary.” Super-injunctions, he added, were “undesirable – we don’t want to see their spread”, but Hemming was given a firm slap down: “Debating principles and issues is very different from violating an order to score a point.” MPs, however, will be largely encouraged. Bercow may think twice about calling Hemming, but he is clearly on Parliament's side.
Bercow on his wife Sally
Richards moved onto the next subject with care: Sally Bercow. The speaker’s wife, an aspiring Labour politician, rampant Tweeter, and one-time towel model, has a knack for making news. She was, Bercow admitted, a “great user of Twitter – I’m not, and I don’t know in advance what she is going to Tweet, which is probably just as well.”
But would it be easier if she didn’t? “She’s free to do what she wants” Bercow replied. “Sally is my wife, but not my chattel or my property. The duty of impartiality doesn’t extend to her – there isn’t a Mrs Speaker – and it’s a spectacularly sexist idea that Sally should have to be silent.”
Bercow on the Daily Mail
And when offering his views on one particular paper, Mr Speaker was anything but. The Daily Mail, Bercow-baiters in chief, was dismissed as a “sexist, racist, bigoted, comic cartoon strip”, with Bercow apologising for breaking the trade descriptions act for describing the Mail as a “newspaper.” A red rag to its parliamentary sketch writer Quentin Letts, but honesty-points for the Speaker.
Bercow on jokes at his expense
The press dealt with, Richards moved on to the jibes from Bercow's fellow public figures, with prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne both using lunches with Westminster journalists to make jokes at the expense of Bercow’s short stature.
Was this, asked Richards, a sign of more malevolent intentions? “I’m not psychic” Bercow replied. “I cannot know what is in the mind of particular public figures...as to whether there’s an attempt to fire a warning shot, I don’t know, and if I was the sort of person to be intimidated by someone cracking a joke then I would be completely unsuitable [as speaker].” The “light entertainment business”, he added, “was not worth bothering about”. Richards leapt in – was Bercow referring to the prime minister? Not at all, Bercow replied. “I was referring to the media...and some others.” Answers on a postcard please.
The Q&A offered a few further intriguing morsels to take home. Ipsa, Parliament’s independent body for parliamentary pay, was, said Bercow, only working “up to a point.” His suggestion that it was still “far too complicated” will please MPs, but not as much as the revelation that he had written to Ipsa and asked the body “sharply to reduce its own expenditures...particularly the large amount of money spent on communications officers to communicate with the public.”
Bercow on parliamentary reforms
Finally, we got a call to reform Early Day Motions, with Bercow appearing to have noticed the fading popularity of EDMs amongst the 2010 intake by warning that the much-mocked parliamentary petitioning tool could not “just go on remorselessly and moronically” and needed to be “given the kiss of life in the form of Parliamentary relevance.”
And given that yesterday's audience had assembled on a Monday night and a good few miles from the Westminster village, there is some evidence to suggests that Bercow, with his discarded breeches, embracing of urgent Parliamentary questions, Parliamentary crèche, and willingness to venture outside the confines of the Palace, is making progress in his attempts to give Parliament a little bit more relevance too.
The reason why there haven’t been so many stories recently about would-be ousting attempts or prime minsterially-backed coups? With apologies to the Daily Mail, it could just be that Bercow is doing a good job.
A nod to him then, and to Richards, who returns soon with Alastair Campbell and Boris Johnson lined up for a slot on the comfy sofa. Both should be well worth attending.