It is 11.30am on Wednesday, 25 September 2019. Unexpectedly, the House of Commons is sitting again. It ceased to do so on 9 September and had not thought it would resume until a state opening on 14 October. Without a doubt, it is the most peculiar atmosphere I have known in the chamber in my more than 22 years as a member of parliament. The expressions on government ministers’ faces range from affronted dignity to sheepish embarrassment to world-weary resignation. Opposition MPs, meanwhile, are jubilant. Surveying the scene from my vantage point of the Speaker’s chair, I began proceedings on this extraordinary day with a gentle but clear signal of contentment that the government’s plan to close down or “prorogue” parliament for five weeks at the height of the unresolved Brexit crisis had been foiled.
“Colleagues, welcome back to our place of work.”
I went on to confirm to MPs that the supreme court had sensationally ruled the previous day that parliament “had not been prorogued” and that I and my opposite number in the House of Lords should take “immediate steps to enable each house to meet as soon as possible”.
In parliament, everything said is recorded and published verbatim. An accurate historical record is crucial. I therefore agreed with the senior clerks that the citation for the supreme court judgment should be entered in the Journal of the House; and the item relating to the prorogation of parliament in the journal of Monday 9 September should be expunged. The house would instead be recorded as having “adjourned” at the close of business on 9 September.
We began with an urgent question that I had granted to the SNP’s Joanna Cherry to ask the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, about his legal opinion on the advice given to the Queen to prorogue parliament. There was a piquancy about the question coming from her – she was her party’s spokesperson on legal and constitutional matters but, perhaps more importantly, she had actively supported the legal case brought against the government on prorogation in Scotland and England. The attorney general knew that. While legitimately seeking to draw Cox on what his legal advice had been, she was also twisting the knife in the government’s gut.
Cox was both the best and the worst representative to pop up for the government that day. The best – I am being generous here – in that he is supremely articulate, opinionated, tough-minded and ready to bat for the government without the slightest hint of embarrassment or self-doubt. I have no reason to suppose that he did not believe every word he spoke. Yet if he didn’t, such was his thespian quality that he carried it off with shameless aplomb. The best in terms of playing to the gallery of shocked Tory MPs and the extreme Brexiteers of the media was also the worst to those not signed up to the message that anyone seeking to stop Brexit was somehow an enemy of the people.
Cox appeared before his peers in two guises – law officer and politician. As the former, he was a model of courteous but unmistakable legal clarity. He then turned his machine-gun fire on parliament. Becoming more florid of face, hyper in tone and undilutedly pompous, he thundered: “We now have a wide number in this house setting their face against leaving [the EU] at all. When the government draw the only logical inference from that position, which is that we must leave therefore without any deal at all, they still set their faces, denying the electorate the chance of having their say in how this matter should be resolved.” At this point, on the flicking of a mental switch, the studied and elaborate courtesy which had long been a hallmark of a Cox performance in parliament gave way to a wild and unstoppable rant reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch.
“This parliament is a dead parliament,” he roared. “It should no longer sit. It has no moral right to sit on those green benches … They don’t like to hear it, Mr Speaker … This parliament is a disgrace.”
The man had worked himself up into a frenzy that oscillated between the comic and the terrifying. Visibly enjoying his sense of moral outrage at the activities of his opponents, Cox began to rotate at the despatch box, swivelling round to rouse his Conservative colleagues to paroxysms of righteous indignation. Turning his back on the house was both mildly “disorderly”, in parliamentary parlance, and very unpopular. I intervened good-naturedly: “I do not normally offer stylistic advice to the attorney general, but his tendency to perambulate while prating is disagreeable to the house. He should face the house with confidence and assurance and an acknowledgement that the house wishes to hear his every utterance.”
“I wonder if you, Mr Speaker,” Cox replied, “in a well-earned retirement, would like to give lessons to frontbenchers. It could be the beginnings of a new and very glorious – or even more glorious – career.”
I won’t describe the atmosphere as electric – that would be too kind, suggestive of excitement, tension and, perhaps, the constructive direction of power. It was worse, far worse, than that. The atmosphere was one of raw, intense, undiluted anger on both sides of the House of Commons, made more alarming by the direction of the anger. It was not aimed at the culprits for an external event such as a terrorist attack. Rather, the anger was that of the prime minister towards the opposition benches; to opponents on his own; the supreme court and, to a degree, me, as the person who had enabled opponents to express their objections to the attempted prorogation of parliament, which I had myself publicly deplored.
In more than two decades in the house, a period that included the most high-octane debates over the Iraq war, I had never known a mood so toxic. The PM’s statement lasted 14 minutes, during which I had to call for order four times. In his second sentence, he referred to “this paralysed parliament”. Barely three minutes later he referred to the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 2) Act, commonly known as the Benn Act, which required the PM to seek an extension to the Brexit withdrawal date in certain circumstances, as the “surrender act”. Shortly afterwards he declared that he thought that the supreme court “was wrong to pronounce on what is essentially a political question” – adding that it had done so at a time of great national controversy.
I gently but firmly underlined the premium placed by Erskine May (the bible of parliamentary procedure) on moderation and good humour in the use of language. Immediately afterwards, the PM referred to the “surrender act” yet again. Paula Sherriff, constituency neighbour of the late Jo Cox, appealed to the prime minister not to resort to the use of “offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language” about legislation that he did not like. His initial response was to say that he had “never heard such humbug”. This prompted outrage and fury on the opposition benches. Obviously the language that produced such upset was no accident. It was deliberate and calculated to press home his “parliament versus the people” narrative, plainly to be used intensively in an upcoming election campaign. Buoyed by innate self-confidence, full-throttle roars of support from most Conservative MPs and the belief that he had a winning message, Johnson did not hold back. He rammed home his script with unremitting vigour.
Immediately after the exchanges on the prime minister’s statement, several MPs leapt to their feet to raise points of order. I did not know exactly what they would be but I had been told that they related to the PM and his statement. I suggested to Johnson that it would be a courtesy to stay for the first, from the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Initially, he seemed minded to do so, but he had a change of heart and left. Later, he texted me to say that he intended no discourtesy but simply decided to stick to his original plan to leave straight after questioning on his statement. Frankly, that was disingenuous of him. The truth was that he had had enough. He didn’t care a damn what I or anyone else thought about him departing the chamber.
By the end of that fateful day , I had chaired the business of the House from 11.30am to just before 11pm without a break. It was my privilege. Yet the atmosphere was worse than I had ever known it. Rancour, demonisation and contempt for opponents’ views were apparent on both sides of the house.
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The following day I told colleagues that we had not shown ourselves to advantage and should do better. I had not liked the prime minister’s language of “surrender” and “capitulation” at all, but it was not “disorderly”. Free speech matters. I do not believe that Johnson sought to incite violence or disorder. Rather, his was a ruthless bid to whip up support for Brexit, for his party and, last but by no means least, for himself. His entire approach to Brexit may be wrong-headed, irresponsible and damaging to the UK national interest, in my view, but that was no reason to censor him from the chair. I could appeal for restraint and I did. But I could not insist on it.
Rancorous and brutal as it was, the prorogation row offered a kind of parallel with my tenure as Speaker. My entire approach in more than a decade in the chair was to seek to increase the relative authority and influence of the legislature, specifically the House of Commons, in its dealings with the executive, the government. It was never any part of my role to serve as a nodding donkey or quiescent lickspittle of the executive branch of our political system. As I had foreshadowed in seeking election as Speaker in 2009, I did not want to be someone, but to do something. The something was to stand up for parliament, encourage the House of Commons to take control of its own core functions and to assert its right fully and unsparingly to scrutinise the government of the day.
Governments want a passive Speaker who will diplomatically stand aside and leave them to call the shots. I never had the slightest interest in playing that role. Likewise, within the house administration, there were always people for whom the status quo was very comfortable and who resisted any change that would threaten that comfort and privilege. My responsibility was not just to sit there, lazily administering the existing order. Rather it was to keep the best and, whether alone or with others, to improve the rest. Specifically, as Speaker, I had a duty to stand up for MPs individually, to champion parliament institutionally and to try to make it look more like the country we are charged to represent. It was, perhaps, a fitting, albeit unanticipated denouement to my tenure to end as I had begun – following the first Speaker to be forced to resign in 300 years – on a note of explosive controversy. The government was pitted against a parliament that rightly and resolutely refused to bend the knee or to shut up. It was my privilege, and I was proud, to pipe up for parliament one last time.
“He is careless with words and facts”
As it happens, I like Boris Johnson. He can be charming and witty. He has never been other than courteous to me. We played tennis in January 2017 at his then official country residence, Chevening, and he took his 6–0, 6–0, 6–0 defeat with very good grace. He is not stupid, but highly intelligent, very well read and a fine conversationalist. However, he is careless with words and facts and, even by the standards of a profession in which self-regard is not uncommon, he is disproportionately preoccupied with whatever serves the cause of advancement for B Johnson. As a debater he is undistinguished and, as a public speaker, though humorous, he is often downright poor – hesitant, unable to string sentences together fluently and about as likely ever to warrant the description “captivating orator” as Bertie Wooster or his chum Gussie Fink-Nottle. Apart from those notable limitations in a man who has since become prime minister, he is, at his occasional best, a passably adequate politician in an age not replete with them.
“She was tearful only when adversity affected her”
Theresa May is decent but as wooden as your average coffee table, a worthy public servant but as dull as ditchwater, courteous to everyone but lacking in an ounce of small talk, honest but lacking in any original convictions, as capable as the next politician of reading a script but devoid of any spontaneity or natural fluency, let alone charisma.
In her resignation speech, she attempted to describe her policy legacy. It was laughable, for there was none. She had not merely failed on her Brexit agenda, she had failed on almost everything else she had pledged to deliver. She had failed to tackle the “burning injustices”, failed to counter the explosion in knife crime, failed to address the rise in racial attacks and failed to devise a policy to meet the challenge posed by the crisis in social care.
Finally, a PM who had become notorious for her absence of empathy and her robotic reiteration of vacuous mantras, suddenly displayed raw emotion about giving up the leadership of the country she loved. There were tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat. I could understand how upsetting it must have been for her but, candidly, I could not feel much sympathy. There was no such emotion over the victims of Grenfell Tower, those affected by the Windrush scandal or the daily misery endured by the homeless and those dependent on the food banks that have mushroomed alarmingly across the UK over the last decade. She was tearful only when adversity affected her.
There was no trickery about her. Where David Cameron, William Hague and Michael Gove had schemed against me, she did not. Sadly, however, she was stubborn when flexibility was needed and, lacking a natural majority, she appeared frozen.
May is not a bad person. She works exceptionally hard and wants the best for her country, while lacking a clear sense of what that is. Rudderless, without imagination, and with few real friends at the highest level, she stumbled on, day to day, lacking clarity, vision and the capacity to forge a better Britain. In a contest as to who has been the worst PM since 1945, it is hard to choose between Anthony Eden and Theresa May.
“Coldness and oiliness in equal measure”
Michael Howard and I worked well together. That is not to say that I ever liked him. Frankly, I didn’t. Some people are cold. Others are oily. His peculiar distinction was to combine coldness and oiliness in equal measure. Nevertheless, I got used to him and he to me. We had regular contact and, though his public image was poor, he was highly professional and a very accomplished performer at the despatch box.
Those performances might not have resonated with the public but he lifted the morale of Conservative MPs with his efforts. Most importantly, whereas his predecessors almost visibly shrank when up against Gordon Brown, Michael was not at all intimidated by him.
Whatever his critics say about him, my experience was that, one to one or in a small group, Gordon Brown was extremely personable, stunningly well read, and able to range widely over different topics. Years later, when I published a book on tennis, he urged me to speak at a literary festival in Scotland about it and my work as Speaker, facilitating such a visit through a friend of his. Often, when Sally [Bercow’s wife] or I was under fire, he would make contact to express solidarity.
“He has a good sense of humour”
It is no secret that most of my allies were from the Labour party. Yet for much of my speakership I had some Conservative allies and rather more of them than my most hardcore foes realised. One such was Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative MP for North East Somerset. Sally had been at Oxford with Jacob, but when he was first elected in 2010 we did not know each other. That soon changed. I heard him speak and we chatted at the chair, as many colleagues and I do.
Jacob is a one-off, a singular specimen of humanity. In order to speak, he does not so much stand up, he “uncoils”. Overwhelmingly, he speaks without a text or notes, and addresses the house in perfect English. He develops and presents a logical argument on whatever subject with admirable fluency. Always ready to accept interventions in his speeches, he deals with them thoughtfully, playing the ball, not the man or woman, and exhibiting unfailing courtesy. He has a good sense of humour and is content not only to be teased but to take the mickey out of himself.
When the Conservative leadership sought, on the last day of the 2010–15 parliament, to change the rules on the re-election of the Speaker, Jacob was scathing. He knew underhand, dishonourable behaviour when he saw it. Not only would he not go along with such chicanery, but he voted against it, humiliating the leader of the house, William Hague, in the process – albeit I doubt Hague had the emotional intelligence to realise that he had been humiliated.
“He was visibly furious. Too bad.”
In seeking election as Conservative leader, Cameron had gone to great lengths to portray himself as a moderniser, someone who wanted his party to “stop banging on about Europe”, to focus on public services, to support gender equality and facilitate a better work-life balance. He wanted a policy on childcare. Yet when I successfully led the drive to establish a nursery in parliament – which he used for a time – he took not the slightest interest and stood idly by while some of his neanderthal backbenchers sought to block the project. If a new idea could be presented to the greater glory of D Cameron, he was ravenous for it. If it could not, he had no appetite for it whatsoever.
When he was under legitimate pressure over his links with News International and Rupert Murdoch, and I granted an urgent question to Ed Miliband to probe him, he was visibly furious. Too bad, I thought. The subject needed to be aired. It was his responsibility to step up to the plate and account for his government. Above all, what Cameron couldn’t abide was when I cut him off at PMQs for going beyond his brief, talking too long, or both. No doubt the resentment welled up in him.
“The parliamentarian that Grenfell folk and the public alike wanted to hear.”
No MP has spoken with greater force or passion on the Grenfell tragedy than David Lammy. Many of the victims were ethnic-minority Britons and, tellingly, Lammy and his artist wife had mentored, employed and encouraged a young woman called Khadija Saye, who died in the fire. It was raw, close to home, inescapably personal to Lammy. That fact, combined with his passionate, angry eloquence in laying bare the sheer avoidable horror of what had happened, carried real weight. On police resources, seizure of documents for investigation, the possibility of criminal charges, health assessments and bereavement counselling for survivors and finance for safe cladding, Lammy was indefatigable in questioning ministers. I am sad to say that May, Sajid Javid (the housing, communities and local government secretary at the time ) and then middle-ranking minister Dominic Raab were matter of fact, even cold, in response. I do not suggest that they did not care, but they appeared to show no empathy whatever. I felt embarrassed for them as they gave such a poor account of themselves whereas Lammy was exactly the parliamentarian that Grenfell folk and the public alike wanted to hear.
This is an edited extract from Unspeakable: The Autobiography by John Bercow, published by W&N (RRP £20) on 6 February. To buy a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.