Page last updated at 09:51 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 10:51 UK

The John Bercow story

John Bercow
John Bercow is, at 46, the youngest Commons Speaker in modern times

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

New Commons Speaker John Bercow says he wants to demystify Parliament's rituals and make it more accessible to ordinary voters.

But - unless you have a deep understanding of the tribal politics which still dominates the House of Commons - the Conservative MP's election to one of the most powerful positions in the land can seem something of a mystery in itself.

How exactly did a one-time right winger, a former member of a pressure group which advocated the repatriation of immigrants, attract so much support from Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs?

And why do his own side - judging from the sour comments and glum faces on the Conservative benches - appear to dislike the 46-year-old so much?


Born: 1963
Educated: Finchley Manorhill comprehensive, University of Essex
Family: Wife Sally and three children
Work: Former merchant banker, political lobbyist and special adviser
1981: Secretary, Monday Club repatriation committee
1985: Chairman, Federation of Conservative Students
1986: Conservative councillor in Lambeth
1997: MP for Buckingham
2000: Tory spokesman on home affairs
2001: Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury
2002: Shadow minister for Work and Pensions
2003: Shadow Secretary of State for International Development
2004: Removed in a front bench reshuffle
2009 Elected Commons speaker

The answer to these questions lies not just in the political manoeuvring which led to his election but in Mr Bercow's own background - and in particular his political "journey", which has been a long and colourful one.

It began in the ultra right wing environs of the Conservative Monday Club.

This pressure group was set up in the early 1960s to uphold traditional Tory values and fight what it saw as the reckless decolonisation of the British Empire.

But by the time Mr Bercow joined in the early 1980s, it was chiefly known for advocating the voluntary repatriation of some immigrants and its dedication to combating socialism at home and abroad.

So while his future Labour Party supporters and friends were taking part in CND marches or manning picket lines, the young Bercow was discussing with the Monday Club's retired colonels and right wing ideologues how best to stop them.

Fired up by his political heroes Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell, he rapidly rose to become secretary of the club's repatriation and immigration committee - an impressive achievement for a teenager.

In an interview with the New Statesman nine years ago Mr Bercow looked back on those days, saying: "Powell convinced me that it was right to fear large-scale immigration. This was 1981, the year of the inner-city riots, and my fear was that we were in a politically explosive situation.

"So I stayed with the Monday Club on the immigration and repatriation committee for 18 months, until it became clear that there were a lot of people at the meetings who were really unpleasant racists and so I left."

Leaving the Monday Club did not dampen the political ambitions of Bercow, the son of a Jewish taxi driver who grew up in Lady Thatcher's north London heartland of Finchley.

'Unpalatable views'

Despite his diminutive frame - he is a self-confessed "little chap" - the comprehensive school educated Bercow was a highly promising tennis player who apparently harboured hopes of turning professional.

A bout of glandular fever has been widely reported to have ended that dream although he remains a qualified tennis coach and used to be David Cameron's doubles partner.

John Bercow in 1997
Mr Bercow was initially known as a Thatcherite right-winger

He continued to put his energies into politics, taking charge of the Conservative student association at the University of Essex, where he would graduate with a First in government.

From there he went on to be head of the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) - a group notorious for its raucous behaviour and left-wing bating stunts, such as wearing "Hang Nelson Mandela" T-shirts.

Mr Bercow insists he never took part in such activities but he would be the group's final chairman - it was disbanded in 1986 by the then Tory chairman Norman Tebbit.

The following year, at the age of 23, he stood as a Tory general election candidate in Motherwell and became a councillor in South London and then the youngest deputy leader of the Tory group on Lambeth council.

After another unsuccessful stab at becoming an MP in 1992, he finally landed a job in his beloved House of Commons, as a special adviser to Jonathan Aitken, then chief secretary to the Treasury.

'Attack dog'

He gave up a political lobbying job with the Tories' favourite ad agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, to work for Aitken, after previously spending a brief period in the City, working as a merchant banker for Hambros.

After Aitken was jailed for perjury and perverting the course of justice, Mr Bercow was taken on by Virginia Bottomley, by then National Heritage Secretary in the dying days of John Major's government.

He was chosen for the safe Conservative seat of Buckingham in February 1996 - but only after hiring a helicopter ("the best £1,000 I have ever spent") to allow him to attend two selection meetings on the same day, the other being Surrey Heath.

When he was elected an MP in 1997 he was very much a Thatcherite rising star
Jonathan Isaby, ConservativeHome

He already had a reputation as an effective orator - he had been running training courses in speaking for Tory MPs since the late 1980s in partnership with Julian Lewis, the future shadow cabinet member who was best man at his wedding and recently led the fight to keep MPs' addresses confidential.

Elected to Parliament in the Labour landslide year of 1997, he was initially seen as something of a Thatcherite "attack dog", and definitely a man to watch amid the demoralised and depleted Tory ranks, quickly gaining promotion to William Hague's front bench.

But as early as 1999 he was beginning to express doubts about traditional Conservative policies.

"It started with one issue. I voted for a differential age of consent for heterosexuals and gays and lesbians, but I wasn't sure I was right. I decided to go away and reflect, talk to gay people, church leaders and parents to gain their impressions," he told The Independent in 2004.

"I came to the conclusion that there was no reason for statutory discrimination and told the Commons I had changed my mind. I then started to reflect deeply on other issues. The decisive phase came during the horrendous 2001 election.

"I repeated the standard tunes convinced that an aggressively Eurosceptic stance would win votes. I was completely wrong. The Conservatives must realise that being sceptical is different from being phobic in what is an interdependent world."

Height difference

He supported Iain Duncan Smith's decision to ban Tory members from the Monday Club, of which he had of course once been a member.

But he quit Mr Duncan Smith's front bench team in 2002 after Tory MPs were ordered to vote against allowing unmarried couples to adopt children.

John Bercow and wife Sally
He married wife Sally around the time of his political transformation

He was frank about Mr Duncan Smith's political prospects, saying he was "as likely to meet an eskimo in the desert" as the then Tory leader was likely to win the next election.

Much has been made of the influence on Mr Bercow's political journey of his Labour-supporting wife Sally Illman, with whom he has had three children.

The height difference between the couple - at 5ft 11ins she towers over her husband by 4.5ins, according to the Daily Telegraph - attracted coverage in the gossip columns at the time of their 2002 marriage.

But the idea that she also towers over him politically, encouraging him to ditch his right wing views and embrace social liberalism is, friends say, too simplistic.

Apart from anything else, Ms Illman was herself a Conservative when they first met in 1989, and who, according to the Daily Mail, went on to twice address the Conservative Party Conference as a delegate before switching sides to campaign for Tony Blair's New Labour by 1997.

"At the time, I campaigned both for Blair and Bercow," she told The Telegraph on the eve of their engagement in 2002.

"I was thrilled that both of them won, but now I am lapsed from New Labour and I naturally support John on the important issues."


Mr Bercow irritated many Conservatives by praising Mr Blair's "outstanding statesmanship" over the Iraq war.

Some critics accuse him of opportunism and of trimming his views to suit the prevailing political trend - he certainly anticipated David Cameron's brand of compassionate Conservatism by several years, although he voted for Mr Cameron's rival Ken Clarke in the 2005 Tory leadership election, arguing that the party should not be led by an Etonian.

But friends say such criticism is unfair and that he has genuinely changed his views over time, as he has become a more rounded, family man.

Jonathan Isaby, co-editor of the ConservativeHome website and an old friend of Mr Bercow's, said: "Without question, he went on a political journey that lasted the best part of a decade.

"His time in the Monday Club was brief, he was still in his teens, but when he was elected an MP in 1997 he was very much a Thatcherite rising star.

"He went on the 'Portillo journey', truth be told, although I don't think they were ever hugely close."

This is a reference to Michael Portillo's gradual move from being a Thatcherite true-believer to a social liberal.

But unlike Mr Portillo, Mr Bercow flirted openly with Labour and there were even rumours that he was about to jump ship when Gordon Brown took over as leader.

In the end, he accepted a job from Mr Brown as an adviser to a government review of support for children with learning difficulties.

'Too friendly'

This was a subject close to his heart, says Mr Isaby, as one of his children has special needs.

But it was the final straw for some of Mr Bercow's backbench Tory colleagues, who had grown tired of his cosying up to the Labour high command.

"People felt that he was far too friendly towards the Labour powers-that-be," explains Mr Isaby.

There is little doubt that Mr Bercow had the drive to become a leading player in a future Conservative government but after falling out of favour with Iain Duncan Smith's successor as Tory leader Michael Howard - he quit the frontbench after Mr Howard tried to move him from the international development brief - he opted to take his career in a different direction.

I think it was almost a two-fingered salute to the British people from Labour MPs, and to the Conservative Party
Tory MP Nadine Dorries on Mr Bercow's election

"By the time of the 2005 election I think he had come to the view that front bench politics was not for him," says Jonathan Isaby.

And Mr Bercow has confessed that his thoughts then turned towards the Speaker's job.

Four years ago he secured a seat on the Speaker's Panel, an obscure committee of backbench MPs who chair standing committees and debates in Westminster Hall, which, as Michael Martin found, can be a good a dry-run for the Speaker's job itself.

Mr Bercow has said that it was in his mind that performing those duties well could stand him in good stead when the next Speaker vacancy arose.

There are plenty who believe Mr Bercow had been quietly plotting a challenge for the Speaker's job for many years.

Home 'flipping'

Michael White, of The Guardian, points out that an anonymous "Bercow for Speaker" website was set up in 2000. Labour MP Stephen Pound said: "He gave many of us the impression that he wanted this job before he became an MP."

But his ambitions were very nearly derailed by being caught up in the MP expenses scandal, when it emerged he had "flipped" his second home from his constituency address to his London flat.

John Bercow
John Bercow has jettisoned the Speaker's traditional robes

He also announced he would voluntarily repay £6,500 to HM Revenue and Customs after admitting he had not paid Capital Gains Tax on the 2003 sales of his constituency and London homes.

Mr Bercow insists he behaved honourably over his expenses and he is committed to reforming the system of MPs pay and perks.

Such questions seemed far from the mind of many MPs who trooped through the voting lobbies on Monday evening.

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries described Mr Bercow's election as "the last hurrah of a dying Labour government and I think it was almost a two-fingered salute to the British people from Labour MPs, and to the Conservative Party".

Labour backbencher Paul Flynn, on the other hand, summed up the feelings of many Labour backbenchers, when he said: "Speaker Bercow is a deeply satisfying result. Many Tories were spitting feathers tonight."

'Reforming' candidate

Labour MP Martin Salter, who organised Mr Bercow's campaign to be Speaker, firmly rejects the idea that Labour MPs backed the Tory MP in such numbers purely to upset David Cameron and his Tory MPs.

In many ways, the past politics of the candidates are utterly irrelevant
Martin Salter, Labour MP who ran Mr Bercow's campaign

"We are not stupid, we have to go back to our constituents and justify our choice," Mr Salter the BBC News website.

He insists Labour MPs voted for Mr Bercow because he was a "reforming" candidate who had demonstrated his ability to work in a non-partisan way and would restore power to the Commons, giving backbenchers more of a voice in framing legislation and questioning the government.

"He is the candidate who wasn't backed by the whips, he is not the establishment candidate," argues the Reading West MP, who represents a neighbouring constituency to Mr Bercow.

He is also happy to accept that Mr Bercow's flirtation with the anti-immigration Tory right was nothing more than a youthful dalliance.

"If he still held those views we wouldn't have voted for him. People change their views... I used to be an anarchist," he says.

'Petty hostilities'

What appears to count for more for Mr Salter, as it did for many Labour MPs in 2000 when they helped elect Michael Martin over a number of Tory grandees, was his working class background.

But Mr Salter is keen to stress that Mr Bercow should be judged on his performance in the Speaker's chair.

"In many ways the past politics of the candidates are utterly irrelevant. On taking office, the Speaker immediately relinquishes party positions," he says, before joking that becoming the Speaker was "John's way of" leaving the Conservative Party.

Conservativehome's Isaby says his friend Bercow "is a House of Commons man to his fingertips".

"He loves the Commons and he will be a massive upholder of that. Some of his critics on the Conservative back benches will be surprised at how well he does. He will be a doughty defender of backbenchers' rights."

The one thing everyone, including Mr Bercow's critics and defeated rivals, agrees about is that he will be given time to prove himself in the role.

The challenge for Speaker Bercow will be to use that time to show that he can rise above the party political manoeuvrings that formed the backdrop to his election.

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