John Bercow: ‘The Conservative Party has run out of steam’
The Tab sat down with the former speaker of the House of Commons to discuss personality in Parliament, party politics, and the public’s changing mood
Last Tuesday (24/1), The Tab sat down with John Bercow, the longest-serving speaker of the House of Commons since the Second World War, at the Cambridge Union.
Bercow spoke to The Tab about the current state of British politics, from the Government’s recent move to block Scotland’s gender recognition bill, his belief that the Conservative Party “has run out of ideas,” and Keir Starmer’s “responsible” leadership. He believes a change is coming in politics, and urged young people to use their voices and their vote.
During his ten years as speaker, Bercow’s flamboyant shouts of ‘order’ and assertive management of debates simultaneously gained him internet fame and loudly-spoken detractors, who took umbrage against his outspoken speakership. Regardless, Bercow certainly gave a recognisable face, and voice, to the Houses of Parliament, and his bold, head-on approach not only reformed the public image of the House, but its inner workings too. His term as speaker saw the ditching of traditional speaker’s dress, a vast increase in the use of urgent questions, and the attribution of unprecedented powers to backbenchers.
Bercow’s time in the speaker’s chair was bookended by the opposing colours of red and blue. Having been a member of the right-wing Monday Club and a Conservative MP before his speakership, he announced he had joined the Labour Party in 2021, having stepped down as speaker in 2019. He was, however, suspended from the party in the following year, amidst investigations of his conduct towards staff while in office. Speaking to The Tab, Bercow discussed his advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights, the possibility of a Labour government, and the Conservative Party’s relationship with the public.
After congratulating Bercow (an Emirates season ticket holder) on Arsenal’s flying form in the league, I began the discussion with the ex-speaker’s internet popularity, and the attention his personality drew towards Parliament. Bercow is a firm believer that, while a politician’s primary duty is to the house, “there is a case for the investment of personality into a role,” and that “if people like you, and think well of you, then they will embrace the product. And if they don’t, then they will find reason to criticise.” He believes there are questions to be asked of the “stuffier” side of politics: “You should take care as speaker not to intervene too much, and not to make everything about you, but I don’t see why everything has to be done with a completely stiff upper-lip and in a totally wooden fashion.” Therefore, the style of his speakership was fashioned as a reaction to the public perception of politics as “dry” and “parched”, in favour of “a little bit of humour – that’s what I tried to deploy.”
Bercow thinks that, within the realms of authenticity, this philosophy should be adopted by politicians more generally: “Insofar as politicians are sometimes regarded as somewhat stuffy, or trad, or a bit forbidding of personality, pompous, I think that likeability, amiability, personability, is important,” as long as politicians “don’t try to be what they’re not.”
“I can think of colleagues that I met over the years, in the minority, who were very capable people, but very cold fish. Not very warm personalities, not very comfortable meeting people.”
When asked if this description applies to David Cameron (who he had previously described as “too privileged” to appeal to the public), Bercow replied: “My feeling was that David Cameron, though actually quite a personable character, found it very difficult truly to empathise with the plight of people vastly less fortunate than he because he’d always been in a very privileged position.” Bercow finds similarities in current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak: “I think he’s fundamentally a decent man, who’s come into public service for the right reasons, but he does have a vastly privileged life.” Fundamentally, says the former speaker, politics should be focused on talent rather than privilege: “I want to see people advance on merit, and not just by virtue of the accident of birth.” While making clear that he doesn’t wish to “knock people who graduate from Oxford or Cambridge and become Prime Minister per-say,” Bercow does admit that he “would like to see Prime Ministers who don’t come from that background.”
One feature of Bercow’s term as speaker was his advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights: “I made it such a key theme of my speakership that I hosted regular event for LGBT charities, it was part of my coat of arms, to have a pink triangle symbolising the commitment to gay equality and the equality rainbow.” The Government’s recent decision to block Scotland’s gender recognition bill has produced a tension between these social causes and constitutional arguments. “If the matter is purely of a Scottish derivation and application,” says Bercow, “that’s one thing. If it impacts on the implementation of, and rights under, UK law, that is another matter, and have I come to a definitive view about that, I haven’t.” Again, Bercow stresses the importance of humanity and reasonability in politics, emphasising that “the debate should be polite and respectful,” and quotes Keir Starmer in saying that such sensitive matters shouldn’t be treated as “a political football” between governments.
From blue to red
Keir Starmer seems to play a key role in Bercow’s firm belief that Labour will form the next government, as the former speaker believes the key to the party’s strong position is that their leader doesn’t “frighten” the electorate. While stressing that he got on “very well” with Jeremy Corbyn, Bercow sees Starmer’s centrist position as an astute reflection of the public’s politics: “I think the electorate is not very left wing. Labour usually wins when it is led from either the centre-left or the centre-right of the Labour party, but not from the far-left, and I think Keir Starmer has established himself as a responsible leader of the opposition.” Bercow’s belief that personality is at the heart of politics again becomes clear in his praise of the Labour leader: “I think he’s forensic, I think he’s incisive in debate, and I also think he’s upright. I think he’s got good values, and I think he’s in a very strong position.”
In comparison, Bercow sees the current government as being in “serious and probably terminal decline […] I think they’ve run out of steam, I think they’ve run out of ideas, I think they’ve run out of road.” While Bercow believes that the Conservative Party’s faltering position is due in part to its leadership, Boris Johnson’s “absolute corruptibility and disregard for the normal rules of fair play” in particular, the ex-speaker also finds fault in the party’s relationship with the public. Bercow believes that the Conservatives must reinvent themselves, as they can no longer rely on their core base: “Conservative party members are disproportionately old, white, and middle class, and I think they’re very very very detached from the mass electorate.” Bercow recalls a conversation he had with a waiter in his local Indian restaurant, in which he resolutely asserted that Liz Truss would beat Rishi Sunak in the September leadership election (though he prefers the latter), simply because party members view her as a “loyalist”, and Sunak as a “traitor.” This base, he goes on, “often has very reactionary views, by comparison with the electorate as a whole. So I think that the Conservative Party, if it goes into opposition, will have to reforge itself in a new way, but it shouldn’t be particularly guided by its current members. The responsibility of a political leader is to lead, not to follow.”
A turning tide
Bercow has previously described the Winter of Discontent of 1978-9 as the moment that sensitised him to politics, so I asked him whether the current cost of living crisis could offer similar motivation to a new generation of politicians. Recalling this period, which saw “rampant strikes right across the public sector,” Bercow quotes the diaries of Barbara Castle, an ex-minister under Prime Minister James Callaghan, in which Callaghan seemed to have resigned himself to an election loss: “He said we have to accept that once in a generation there is a shift in the public mood, of a quite a decisive character, and when that happens there’s nothing you can do. It’s like a tide that has turned, and you can’t resist it.”
While admitting that this period isn’t directly comparable to the current moment, Bercow recognises that after years of austerity and wage stagnation, and the recent rise in cost of living, “people have noticed that their situation has been exacerbated, the problems have been compounded, by massive errors on the part of the government. And that was especially true during the short, and thankfully now concluded, Truss era.”
Bercow is sure that, come the next election, this awareness will not have subsided: “People are really struggling. Rishi’s not struggling, Nadhim Zahawi’s not struggling, Jeremy Hunt’s not struggling, most members of the government are not struggling, but most members of the public are struggling. And I think in the end people will feel, as Churchill would have said: ‘Up with this we will no longer put, we want a change.’ So I think that there is an opportunity for a change, and I would just say that if young people feel strongly, the one thing they’ve got to be sure to do is vote.”
Featured image credits: The Cambridge Union