IIt is 11.30 on Wednesday 25 September 2019. Unexpectedly, the House of Commons is sitting again. He stopped doing it on September 9 and hadn’t thought he would resume until the state opened on October 14. Without a doubt, it is the most unique atmosphere that I have known in the chamber for more than 22 years as a Member of Parliament. The expressions on the faces of government ministers range from offensive dignity to embarrassing embarrassment to the tired resignation of the world. The opposition deputies, meanwhile, are exultant. Looking at the scene from my privileged point of view in the speaker’s chair, I began work on this extraordinary day with a gentle but clear sign of contentment that the government’s plan to close or “extend” the parliament for five weeks at the height of the crisis unresolved Brexit had been foiled.
“Colleagues, welcome back to our workplace.”
I continued to confirm to parliamentarians that the supreme court had sensationally pronounced the previous day that parliament “had not been extended” and that I and my number opposite the House of Lords had to take “immediate steps to allow each house to meet as soon as possible “.
In parliament, everything that is said is recorded and published literally. An accurate historical record is crucial. I therefore agreed with senior employees that the citation for the supreme court ruling should be included in the Journal of the House; and the entry relating to the extension of parliament in the magazine of Monday 9 September should be deleted. The house would instead be registered as “postponed” at the end of the works on 9 September.
We started with an urgent question that I had allowed Joanna Cherry of the SNP to ask the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, for her legal opinion on the advice given to the queen to extend parliament. There was some concern about the question that came to her: she was the spokesperson for her party on legal and constitutional issues but, perhaps more importantly, she had actively supported the legal case brought against the government on the extension in Scotland and England. The attorney general knew it. While legitimately trying to lure Cox into what his legal advice had been, he was also twisting the knife in the government’s gut.
Cox was both the best and worst representative to show up for the government that day. The best – here I am generous – as it is extremely articulate, opinionated, hard-minded and ready to fight for the government without the slightest hint of embarrassment or insecurity. I have no reason to suppose he didn’t believe all the words he spoke. Still, if he hadn’t, his Thespian quality was such that he casually took him away aplomb. The best in terms of reproduction of the gallery of shocked Tory MPs and the extreme Brexiteers of the media was also the worst for those who had not adhered to the message that anyone trying to stop Brexit was somehow enemy of the people.
Cox appeared in front of his peers in two ways: law officer and politician. Like the first, it was a model of polite but unmistakable legal clarity. He then lit his machine-gun fire in parliament. Becoming more florid than the face, hyper tone and pompously pompous, he thundered: “Now we have a large number in this house that puts its face against the start [the EU] at all. When the government draws the only logical inference from that position, which is that we must therefore abandon without any agreement, they put themselves in the face anyway, denying the electorate the opportunity to have their say on how to resolve the issue. “this point, with the click of a mental switch, the studied and elaborate courtesy that had long been the hallmark of a Cox performance in parliament gave way to a wild and unstoppable rant that recalls a Monty Python sketch.
“This parliament is a dead parliament,” he roared. “He should no longer sit down. He has no moral right to sit on those green benches … They don’t like to listen to him, President Speaker … This parliament is a shame. “
The man had unleashed a frenzy that oscillated between the comic and the terrifying. Visibly enjoying his sense of moral outrage over the activities of his opponents, Cox began to rotate towards the shipping box, revolving around to stir up his conservative colleagues in paroxysms of just indignation. Turning your back on the house was both slightly “messy” in the parliamentary parliament and very unpopular. I spoke in a good mood: “Normally I don’t offer stylistic advice to the attorney general, but his tendency to spread while prating is unpleasant for the home. He should face the house with confidence, security and awareness that the house wants to hear every expression. “
“I wonder if you, Mr. President,” said Cox, “in a well-deserved retirement, would like to give lessons to the frontbenchers. It could be the beginning of a new and very glorious – or even more glorious – career.”
I won’t describe the atmosphere as electric – it would be too gentle, suggestive of excitement, tension and, perhaps, the constructive direction of power. It was worse, much worse, than that. The atmosphere was raw, intense, undiluted anger on both sides of the House of Commons, made more alarming by the direction of anger. It was not aimed at those guilty of an external event such as a terrorist attack. Rather, the anger was that of the prime minister against the opposition pews; to opponents alone; the supreme court and, to a certain extent, I, as a person who had allowed opponents to express their objections to the attempt to extend parliament, which I myself had publicly deplored.
In more than two decades in the home, a period that included the highest octane debates on the Iraq war, I had never known such a toxic mood. The Prime Minister’s statement lasted 14 minutes, during which time I had to call the order four times. In his second sentence, he referred to “this paralyzed parliament”. Just three minutes later, he was referring to the European Union law (withdrawal) (No. 2), commonly known as the Benn law, which required the PM to seek an extension of the Brexit withdrawal date in certain circumstances, as an “act of delivery”. Shortly thereafter, he declared that he thought that the supreme court “had been wrong to rule on an essentially political issue” – adding that he had done so at a time of great national controversy.
I have gently but firmly underlined the prize awarded by Erskine May (the bible of the parliamentary procedure) on moderation and good humor in the use of language. Immediately afterwards, the PM again referred to the deed of delivery. Paula Sherriff, electoral neighbor of the late Jo Cox, appealed to the prime minister not to resort to the use of “offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language” on legislation that he did not like. His initial response was to say that “he had never felt such humility”. This sparked outrage and anger in the opposition pews. Obviously the language that produced this upheaval was no accident. It was deliberated and calculated to bring back his story “Parliament against the people”, clearly to be used intensively in an upcoming election campaign. Backed by innate self-confidence, full-throttle roars of support from most conservative MPs and the belief that he has a winning message, Johnson did not hold back. He rammed his script at home with relentless vigor.
Immediately after the exchanges on the Prime Minister’s statement, several MPs jumped up to raise order points. I didn’t know exactly what they would be, but I was told they were referring to the prime minister and his statement. I suggested to Johnson that it would be a courtesy to stay for the first one, from the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Initially, he seemed to be doing it, but he had a change of heart and left. Later, he wrote to me that he did not intend to be discouraged, but simply decided to stick to his original plan to leave immediately after questioning his statement. Frankly, this was dishonest on his part. The truth was that he had had enough. He didn’t care what I or anyone else thought of leaving the room.
By the end of that fateful day, I had presided over home affairs from 11.30 to just before 11 pm without a break. It was my privilege. Yet the atmosphere was worse than I had ever known her. Grudge, demonization and contempt for opponents’ opinions were evident on both sides of the house.
The following day I told colleagues that we had not shown the advantage and that we had to do better. I didn’t like the prime minister’s “surrender” and “capitulation” language at all, but it wasn’t “messy”. Freedom of speech is important. I don’t think Johnson tried to incite violence or disorder. Rather, his was a ruthless offer to get support for Brexit, for his party and, last but not least, for himself. His whole approach to Brexit may be wrong, irresponsible and detrimental to the UK’s national interest, in my opinion, but this was not a reason to censor it from the presidency. I could appeal for moderation and I did. But I couldn’t insist.
Resentful and brutal as it was, the extension row offered a sort of parallel with my mandate as a rapporteur. My whole approach in more than a decade in the presidency has been to try to increase the relative authority and influence of the legislature, especially the House of Commons, in its dealings with the executive, the government. The role of a nodding donkey or a lick of retirement from the executive branch of our political system has never been part of my role. As I foreshadowed in seeking elections as president in 2009, I didn’t want to be someone, but to do something. The fact was to defend parliament, encourage the House of Commons to take control of its core functions and assert its right in a full and unconditional way to control the government of the day.
Governments want a passive speaker who will diplomatically step aside and let them call the shots. I never had the slightest interest in playing that role. Similarly, within the home 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 keeping the best and, alone or with others, improving the rest. In particular, as a rapporteur, I had the duty to defend the parliamentarians individually, to defend the parliament institutionally and to try to make the country we are supposed to represent seem more. It was perhaps an appropriate, albeit unexpected, complaint to my tenure when I started – after the first speaker was forced to resign in 300 years – on a note of explosive controversy. The government was opposed to a parliament that rightly and resolutely refused to bend the knee or shut up. It was my privilege, and I was proud, to convene Parliament one last time.
“He is uninterested in words and deeds”
I happen to like Boris Johnson. It can be fascinating and witty. He has never been more than courteous to me. We played tennis in January 2017 in his then official country residence, Chevening, and he defeated 6–0, 6–0, 6–0 with a very good grace. He is not stupid, but very intelligent, very well read and an excellent conversationalist. However, he is uninterested in words and deeds and, even by the standards of a profession where self-esteem is not uncommon, he is disproportionately concerned with all that is needed for the cause of progress for B Johnson. As a debtor he does not stand out and, as a public speaker, although humorous, he is often decidedly poor – hesitant, unable to put together fluently and almost never able to justify the description of “captivating speaker” like Bertie Wooster or his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle. Aside from these significant limitations in a man who has since become prime minister, he is, at his best occasional, a politically passable adequate in an era not full of them.
“She was in tears only when adversity hit her”
Theresa May is decent but wooden like your average coffee table, a worthy public official but boring as the ditch, courteous to everyone but without an ounce of chat, honest but devoid of original beliefs, capable as the next politician of read a script but without spontaneity or natural fluidity, let alone charisma.
In his resignation speech, he attempted to describe his political heritage. It was ridiculous, because there was nobody there. It hadn’t simply failed in its Brexit program, it had failed in almost everything else it had pledged to deliver. She had failed to address the “burning injustices”, had failed to counter the explosion of knife crime, had failed to cope with the rise in racial attacks and had failed to develop a policy to meet the challenge posed. from the crisis of social assistance.
Eventually, a Prime Minister who had become famous for his lack of empathy and robotic reiteration of mantra vacui suddenly showed a clear thrill in giving up the leadership of the country he loved. There were tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat. I could understand how shocking it had been for her but, candidly, I couldn’t feel much sympathy. There has been no such excitement for the victims of Grenfell Tower, those affected by the Windrush scandal or the daily misery suffered by the homeless and those dependent on the food banks that have grown alarmingly across the UK in the past decade. She was in tears only when adversity hit her.
There was no deception in her. Where David Cameron, William Hague and Michael Gove had plotted against me, he didn’t. Unfortunately, however, she was stubborn when flexibility was needed and, lacking a natural majority, she seemed frozen.
May is not a bad person. He works exceptionally hard and wants the best for his country, despite not having a clear sense of what he is. Without a rudder, without imagination and with a few true friends of the highest level, he stumbled, day by day, without clarity, vision and ability to forge a better Britain. In a race over who has been the worst PM since 1945, it is difficult to choose between Anthony Eden and Theresa May.
“Coldness and oiliness in equal measure”
Michael Howard and I have worked well together. That’s not to say I’ve ever liked it. Frankly, I didn’t. Some people are cold. Others are fat. His peculiar distinction was to combine coldness and oiliness in equal measure. However, I got used to him and he got used to me. We had regular contacts and, although his public image was poor, he was highly professional and a very skilled artist in the shipping box.
Those performances may not have resonated with the public, but it has raised the morale of conservative MPs with his efforts. Above all, while his predecessors narrowed almost visibly when they clashed with Gordon Brown, Michael was not intimidated by him at all.
Whatever his critics said about him, my experience was that, one by one or in a small group, Gordon Brown was extremely personable, incredibly well-read and able to range widely on different topics. Years later, when I published a book on tennis, he urged me to talk about it in a Scottish literary festival and to my job as a speaker, facilitating this visit through a friend of his. Often when Sally [Bercow’s wife] or I was under fire, he would have contacted to express solidarity.
“Has a good sense of humor”
It’s no secret that most of my allies came from the Labor party. Yet for much of my relationship I have had some conservative allies and a little more than my most hardcore enemies have made. One of these was Jacob Rees-Mogg, the conservative MP from North East Somerset. Sally had been to Oxford with Jacob, but when he was first elected in 2010 we didn’t know each other. This soon changed. I heard about it and we chatted in the chair, like many colleagues and I.
Jacob is a unique, singular specimen of humanity. To speak, he doesn’t get up so much, he “unrolls” himself. Overwhelmingly, he speaks without a text or notes and turns to the house in perfect English. Develop and present a logical topic on any topic with admirable fluidity. Always ready to accept speeches in his speeches, he faces them thoughtfully, playing the ball, not the man or the woman, and exhibiting unfailing courtesy. He has a good sense of humor and is happy not only to be made fun of, but to remove the Mickey Mouse from himself.
When the conservative leadership tried, on the last day of parliament in 2010-2015, to change the rules on the reelection of the President, Jacob was in anger. He knew a sneaky and dishonorable behavior when he saw it. Not only would he not get along with such a cavalry, but he voted against it, humiliating the head of the house, William Hague, in the trial – although I doubt that The Hague had the emotional intelligence of realizing that he had been humiliated.
“He was visibly furious. Sin.”
In seeking elections as a conservative leader, Cameron did everything he could to interpret himself as a modernizer, someone who wanted his party to “stop knocking on Europe”, to focus on public services, support gender equality and facilitate a better work – life balance. He wanted a policy on childcare. However, when I successfully led the attempt to set up an asylum in parliament – which he used for a while – he didn’t have the slightest interest and stopped idly while some of his neanderthal backbenchers were trying to block the project. If a new idea could be presented to D Cameron’s greatest glory, he was hungry for it. If this were not possible, he had no appetite for it.
When he was under legitimate pressure on his ties to News International and Rupert Murdoch, and I granted Ed Miliband an urgent question to probe him, he was visibly furious. Too bad, I thought. The topic had to be aired. It was his responsibility to take a step forward and account for his government. Above all, what Cameron failed to respect was when I stopped him at the PMQ to go beyond his brief, talk too long or both. Undoubtedly resentment was unleashed in him.
“The MP that the people of Grenfell and the public wanted to hear.”
No MP has spoken with greater force or passion than David Lammy’s Grenfell tragedy. Many of the victims were British ethnic minorities and apparently Lammy and his artist wife mentored, employed and encouraged a young woman named Khadija Saye, who died in the fire. It was raw, close to home, inevitably personal to Lammy. This fact, combined with his passionate and angry eloquence in exposing the pure avoidable horror of what had happened, had real weight. As for police resources, the seizure of investigative documents, the possibility of criminal charges, health checks and mourning advice for survivors and funding for safekeeping, Lammy was indefatigable in questioning ministers. I am sad to say that in May, Sajid Javid (secretary for houses, communities and the local government at the time) and then middle-ranking minister Dominic Raab were in fact, even cold, in response. I don’t suggest that they didn’t care, but they seemed to show no empathy. I felt embarrassed for them as they gave such a poor account of themselves while Lammy was exactly the MP that the people of Grenfell and the public wanted to hear.
This is an excerpt by John Bercow’s Unspeakable: The Autobiography, published by W&N (RRP £ 20) on February 6. To purchase a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free p & p in the UK over £ 15.