ANDREW PIERCE: John Bercow’s defection is a terrific coup… for the Tories
On the celebrity website Cameo, John Bercow can be found delivering customised one-minute video messages to anyone willing to stump up the punchy £82.50 fee. (Nigel Farage asks for £75!)
Inevitably, the ex-Speaker’s offerings tend to feature his signature bellow ‘Orderrrrrrrr!’ – the loud and attention-seeking slogan for which he became notorious during the long Brexit debates of the last parliament.
Bercow, 58, has clearly had a lot of time on his hands since he left the Commons in ignominious circumstances in 2019.
Bercow had signed up to Labour in all but name even before he became Commons Speaker in 2009
Despite being nominally a Tory, he won thanks only to the near-unanimous support of Labour MPs, with just two or three of his own party voting for him
So perhaps his decision to join Labour – in the most high-profile defection in a decade – was only to be expected from a man who craves the limelight and who by all accounts is desperate to secure a comfortable sinecure in the House of Lords.
A parliamentarian in his soul – albeit with allegiances that have drifted around spectacularly over the years – he was never going to go quietly into that good political night, especially after his hankering to don the ermine was thwarted by a furious Boris Johnson in 2019.
In a private WhatsApp group for Tory MPs yesterday, the mood was jubilant.
With Labour facing a tough by-election next month in Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire – a Brexit-supporting seat behind the party’s once-impregnable Red Wall – one MP had a wry suggestion.
‘Let’s hope Labour sends him to Batley to campaign,’ said the MP. ‘We’ll win it by a landslide!’
At the top of the Conservative Party, there was delight that Sir Keir Starmer, who many believe will face a leadership challenge if Labour loses in Batley, has allowed the former Speaker to join his ranks. One minister tells me: ‘John Bercow is a magnificent recruiting sergeant for the Tory party. He will remind everyone that Labour opposed Brexit – and still does.
‘Only an Islington lawyer like Starmer would believe that Bercow is a vote-winner. How does he think the recruitment will play in Labour seats that voted Leave?’
How indeed! A Labour MP in the North of England, whose majority was slashed in the Brexit surge at the last election, perhaps spoke for many when he said: ‘A lot of us were appalled by Bercow’s antics in the Speaker’s chair. If Starmer puts him in the Lords, it will reinforce the view that Labour has been captured by the Remain elite.’
At the top of the Conservative Party, there was delight that Sir Keir Starmer, who many believe will face a leadership challenge if Labour loses in Batley, has allowed the former Speaker to join his ranks
And yet, politically, Bercow had signed up to Labour in all but name even before he became Commons Speaker in 2009.
Despite being nominally a Tory, he won thanks only to the near-unanimous support of Labour MPs, with just two or three of his own party voting for him.
As Speaker, he broke with the crucial convention of impartiality by revealing he had voted Remain. He caused outrage by manipulating parliamentary procedure in unprecedented fashion, first to force Johnson to delay Brexit and then apparently scuppering the referendum result altogether by siding with Labour and Tory rebels.
He was also beset by frequent claims of bullying and intimidation which, we must add, he emphatically rejected.
His controversial tenure finally came to end when Johnson ordered a new candidate to be selected to stand against him in his Buckingham seat at the last election – in a dramatic break with tradition, as Speakers are usually unopposed.
Bercow saw the writing on the wall and stood down. True to form, days after the election, he was publicly calling Brexit ‘the biggest mistake’ Britain had made since the Second World War.
Out of Parliament, he had hoped to make a killing on the after-dinner speaking circuit – but the pandemic put paid to that.
He also thought he would forge a new career on the red benches. Arrogant and high-handed, it never occurred to him that a peerage would not be automatically conferred on him after leaving the Commons. ‘He used to talk about how he would be a reforming peer and shake up the Lords,’ said one former colleague.
‘He had a sense of entitlement that he would be given a peerage.’
Instead he became the first Speaker in 300 years not to go to the upper house – even though Jeremy Corbyn, the then-Labour leader, nominated him, only to be blocked by Downing Street.
The snub still smarts, with observers saying Bercow has become increasingly restless, frustrated and angry about it.
Despite his noisy denials yesterday, he will surely be hoping Starmer puts him in the House of Lords at the first opportunity.
One Government minister told me yesterday: ‘Bercow has yet again been too clever by half. Starmer is damned if he puts him in the Lords and damned if he doesn’t with his Remain MPs. Bercow has done us another huge favour.’
Straight-talking Edwina Currie, the former health minister, was even more blunt. ‘He’s a self centred twerp and always was.’
John Bercow yesterday denied that his defection to Labour was part of a ploy to get a peerage.
He insisted there was ‘no barter, no trade, no deal whatsoever’ in his decision to switch sides.
Mr Bercow served as a Conservative MP for 12 years before his election as Commons Speaker in 2009. During his ten years in the chair, he made enemies among Brexit-supporting MPs who thought he was favouring Remain.
The Conservatives then enraged Mr Bercow by breaking with a long-standing convention to elevate a retiring Speaker to the House of Lords. The snub came amid allegations that he bullied parliamentary staff – claims he has always denied.
The party switch is being seen by his enemies as an attempt to win a nomination for a peerage from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
Mr Bercow served as a Conservative MP for 12 years before his election as Commons Speaker in 2009
But Mr Bercow told Sky’s Trevor Phillips On Sunday: ‘I’ve had absolutely no discussion whatsoever, either with Keir Starmer or any other member of the Labour leadership about that matter. There has been no barter, no trade, no deal whatsoever.
‘It isn’t in my mind, it’s not part of the game plan, I haven’t discussed it. What I’m motivated by is a commitment to equality, social justice and internationalism.’ Explaining his decision to back Labour, Mr Bercow told The Observer that the Tories under Boris Johnson were ‘reactionary, populist, nationalistic and sometimes even xenophobic’.
He added: ‘The conclusion I have reached is that this Government needs to be replaced. The reality is that the Labour Party is the only vehicle that can achieve that objective. There is no other credible option.’
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland claimed Mr Bercow had diminished his political influence by joining Labour. He said: ‘He’s somebody that even though he’s left office does carry a degree of authority like his predecessors and I think his predecessors’ authority was enhanced by their refusal to go back into party politics,’ Mr Buckland said. ‘But I think him joining a political party actually has the effect of diminishing the force of his voice in politics, however strong he wants it to be.’ Mr Bercow, whose wife Sally once stood as a Labour council candidate, said that as a private citizen he was entitled to take a political view, adding: ‘And my view is a Left of centre view.’ Tory MP Andrew Bridgen is among those who alleged Mr Bercow was operating a ‘cynical’ and ‘cunning’ plan to be nominated as a peer.
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