John Bercow is possibly the most famous Speaker of the House of Commons in modern history, and he’s not even half way through his self imposed nine year term. His shifting political positions, high profile confrontations, outspoken wife, short stature, verbose oratory, all make John Bercow a recognisable and easily caricatured figure.
I am currently researching the effect of Bercow’s reform agenda – which aims to empower backbenchers – on his relationship with frontbench MPs. Not the most exciting topic on first appearance, but I have found some interesting tales of parliamentary dissent, and found praise for the Speaker from unlikely sources, including the infamous Nadine Dorries. It is because of this research that Mark Stuart asked me to chair the Q&A session with John Bercow during the Parliament in the UK module’s recent trip to Westminster.
After sessions with Andrew Lansley (Leader of the House), Sir George Young (Chief Whip), Steve McCabe (former Labour whip), and Jack Straw (Former Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House), I was excited to finally meet Bercow. It’s odd to meet someone you’re writing an essay on; the abstract suddenly becomes real. The first thing that struck me was that he isn’t as short as I thought, maybe because I am not tall myself, but I do think the enormity of the Speaker’s Chair adds to the “dwarf” caricature.
During the Q&A session Bercow displayed the passion, whit, and self-deprecation for which he is known. He answered questions on The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the body in charge of MPs expenses, with a determined and zealous defence of MPs and the agency, whilst admitting there is still room for improvement. He diplomatically deflected a question on the convention that the three major parties do not contest the Speaker’s constituency by saying the decision lay with the House.
I questioned him on his high profile confrontations with MPs, such as former Government Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin and former Health Minister Simon Burns, who called Bercow a “sanctimonious little dwarf”. Bercow jovially repeated this line to the audience to a response of awkward laughter. He admitted he could have dealt with the situation involving McLoughlin better, and should have kept his temper, but maintains that he is not a “barer of grudges” and holds no ill will towards the two.
After my 30 minutes with John Bercow I think I will have to rewrite parts of my essay. I have come away with the impression that Bercow does want to uphold Parliamentary integrity, even if he is still prone to the occasional outburst, self-promotion, or longwinded speech.
Adam Charlton is a third year BA Politics student at the University of Nottingham.