John Bercow

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The Right Honourable
John Bercow
MP
John Bercow 2012.png
Bercow in 2012
Speaker of the House of Commons
Assumed office
22 June 2009
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister
Deputy
Preceded by Michael Martin
Shadow Secretary of State for International Development
In office
10 November 2003 – 8 September 2004
Leader Michael Howard
Preceded by Caroline Spelman
Succeeded by Alan Duncan
Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury
In office
18 September 2001 – 23 July 2002
Leader Iain Duncan Smith
Preceded by Oliver Letwin
Succeeded by Howard Flight
Member of Parliament
for Buckingham
Assumed office
1 May 1997
Preceded by George Walden
Majority 25,725 (48.8%)
Chancellor of the University of Essex
Assumed office
22 July 2017
Vice-Chancellor Anthony Forster
Preceded by Shami Chakrabarti
Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire
Assumed office
2014
Vice-Chancellor Bill Rammell
Personal details
Born John Simon Bercow
(1963-01-19) 19 January 1963 (age 55)
Edgware, Middlesex, England
Political party None (Speaker; since 2009)
Other political
affiliations
Conservative (before 2009)
Spouse(s) Sally Illman (m. 2002)
Children 3
Alma mater University of Essex
Website www.johnbercow.co.uk

John Simon Bercow MP (/ˈbɜːrk/; born 19 January 1963) is a British politician who has been the Speaker of the House of Commons since June 2009. Prior to his election to Speaker, he was a member of the Conservative Party. A former hardline right-winger who changed his views after becoming an MP and at one time was rumoured to be likely to defect to the Labour Party, Bercow's election to the Speaker's chair depended heavily on the backing of other parties, and was deeply unpopular with many of his former colleagues.[2]

He served as a councillor from 1986 to 1990 and unsuccessfully contested parliamentary seats in the 1987 and 1992 general elections. In the 1997 general election, Bercow was elected the MP for Buckingham and promoted to the shadow cabinet in 2001. He held posts in the shadow cabinets of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. In November 2002, he resigned from the shadow cabinet over disputes concerning the Adoption and Children Act but returned under Howard in 2003. In September 2004, Bercow was sacked after disagreements with Howard.

Following the resignation of Speaker Michael Martin, Bercow announced his intention to stand for the Speakership election on 22 June 2009 and was successful. He remained Speaker and was re-elected in his constituency at the general election on 7 May 2015. He was re-elected as Speaker, unopposed, when the House sat at the start of the new parliament on 18 May 2015.[3] Following the 2017 general election, Bercow was re-elected, again unopposed, as Speaker, on 13 June 2017. He is the first Speaker since the Second World War to be elected to the post three times.[4]

In 2014, Bercow was appointed Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire,[5] and in July 2017 he was appointed Chancellor of the University of Essex.[6]

Origins

His father was a taxi driver, of a British Jewish family in Edgware, Middlesex.[7] His paternal grandparents were Jews who arrived in Britain from Romania a century ago.[8][9] Having settled in the UK, the family Anglicized its surname from Berkowitz to Bercow.[10]

Early life and education

Bercow attended Frith Manor Primary School in Woodside Park, and Finchley Manorhill, a large comprehensive school in North Finchley. In his youth, Bercow had been ranked Britain's No.1 junior tennis player, but came down with bronchial asthma and was unable to pursue a professional career.[11][12]

Bercow graduated with a first-class honours degree in government from the University of Essex in 1985.[13] Professor Anthony King said "When he was a student here, he was very right-wing, pretty stroppy, and very good. He was an outstanding student."[13]

As a young activist, Bercow was a member of the right-wing Conservative Monday Club. He stood as a candidate for the club's national executive in 1981 with a manifesto calling for a programme of "assisted repatriation" of immigrants, and became secretary of its immigration and repatriation committee, .[14] However, at the age of 20 he left the club, citing the views of many of the club's members as his reason,[15] and has since then called his participation in the club "utter madness" and dismissed his views from that period as "bone headed".[14]

Pre-political career

After graduating from the University of Essex, Bercow was elected as the last national chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS), 1986–87.[13] The FCS was then broken up by the chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit, after one of its members had accused previous Tory PM Harold Macmillan of war crimes in extraditing Cossacks to the Soviet Union.[16] Bercow attracted the attention of the Conservative leadership, and in 1987 he was appointed by Tebbit as vice-chairman of the Conservative Collegiate Forum (the successor organisation of the FCS) to head the campaign for student support in the run-up to the 1987 general election.

After a spell in merchant banking, Bercow joined the lobbying firm Rowland Sallingbury Casey (part of Saatchi & Saatchi) in 1988, becoming a board director within five years.

With fellow Conservative Julian Lewis, Bercow ran an advanced speaking and campaigning course for over 10 years, which trained over 600 Conservatives (including several current MPs) in campaigning and communication techniques. He has also lectured in the United States to students of the Leadership Institute.[17]

Political career

Councillor

In 1986, Bercow was elected as a Conservative councillor in the London Borough of Lambeth, and served for four years representing the Streatham, St Leonard's ward. In 1987, he was appointed the youngest deputy group leader in the United Kingdom.[18]

Special adviser

In 1995, Bercow was appointed as a special adviser to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Jonathan Aitken. After Aitken's resignation to fight a libel action, Bercow served as a special adviser to the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Virginia Bottomley.

Parliamentary career

Bercow in Poland in 2010

Bercow was an unsuccessful Conservative candidate in the 1987 general election in Motherwell South, and again at the 1992 general election in Bristol South. In 1996 he paid £1,000 to charter a helicopter so that he could attend the selection meetings for two safe Conservative parliamentary seats on the same day – Buckingham and Surrey Heath – and was selected as the candidate for Buckingham. He has referred to the hiring of the helicopter as "the best £1,000 I have ever spent".[18]

Bercow was first elected to parliament in the 1997 general election as the MP for Buckingham with a majority of 12,386. He then increased his majority at the 2001 general election being elected by a margin of 18,129 votes. He was also re-elected at the 2005 general election, but with a reduced majority of 12,529.

Bercow rose quickly through the opposition's junior offices. He was appointed a frontbench spokesman for Education and Employment in June 1999, and then a frontbench spokesman for Home Affairs in July 2000, before being brought into the shadow cabinet in 2001 by the Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith. He served as Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury from September 2001 to July 2002, and as Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions from July to November 2002. During this first spell on the front benches, Bercow publicly said that he did not think he was ruthless enough to reach the top of politics.[19] In November 2002, when the Labour government introduced the Adoption and Children Act, which would allow unmarried gay and heterosexual couples to adopt children, Duncan Smith imposed a three-line whip requiring Conservative MPs to vote against the bill rather than allowing a free vote. In protest, Bercow defied the whips and voted with Labour arguing that it should be a free vote. He then resigned from the front bench.[20] As a backbencher he was openly critical of Duncan Smith's leadership, declaring that he was about as likely to "meet an Eskimo in the desert" as Duncan Smith was to win the next general election.[21]

In 2003, Bercow praised prime minister Tony Blair for his speech about Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. He wrote, "Congratulations on your superb speech in the Iraq debate. On this subject, as on many other foreign affairs issues, you have provided outstanding statesmanship."[22] In November 2003, the new Conservative leader Michael Howard appointed Bercow as Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. However, he went on to clash with Howard over taxes, immigration and Iraq,[23] and was sacked from the front bench in September 2004 after telling Howard that Ann Widdecombe was right to have said that there was "something of the night about him".[24] Bercow has a long-standing interest in Burma and frequently raised issues of democracy and genocide in the country. In 2006 he was made a patron of the Tory Reform Group.[25] In 2001, he also supported the ban on MPs becoming members of the Monday Club, an organisation of which he is a former member (see above).[26]

Bercow was formerly the treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tribal Peoples,[27] an APPG composed of over 30 cross-party MPs which aims to raise parliamentary and public awareness of tribal peoples.[28]

Bercow won the Stonewall award for Politician of the Year in 2010 for his work to support equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people.[29] He was given a score of 100% in favour of lesbian, gay and bisexual equality by Stonewall.[30]

Opposition MP of the Year

In 2005, Bercow won the Channel Four/Hansard Society Political Award for 'Opposition MP of the Year'. He said:

In addition to pursuing a wide variety of local issues, I have attempted to question, probe and scrutinise the Government in the House of Commons on important national and international topics which concern people. Over the last 12 months, I have constantly pressed the case for reform of world trade rules to give the poorest people on the planet a chance to sell their products and improve their quality of life. The plight of the people of Darfur, Western Sudan, has also been a regular theme. They have suffered too much for too long with too little done about the situation. I shall go on arguing for Britain to take the lead in the international community in seeking decisive action for peace and justice.[31]

Rumours of defection

Following the defection of Conservative MP Quentin Davies to the Labour Party in June 2007, there were persistent rumours that Bercow was likely to be the next Conservative MP to leave the party.[32]

Bercow did not defect to Labour, but in September 2007, prime minister Gordon Brown announced that Bercow had accepted an advisory post on the Labour government's review of support for children with speech, language and communication special needs. The Conservative Party chairman, Caroline Spelman, confirmed that this appointment was with the consent of the Conservative Party.[33] Bercow had a long-term interest in this topic, as his son Oliver has been diagnosed with autism.[34]

The Bercow review

In 2008, Bercow was asked by Labour cabinet members Ed Balls and Alan Johnson to produce a substantial review of children and families affected by speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). After the report, the government pledged £52 million to raise the profile of SLCN within the education field.

The review looks at the extreme consequences to which communication problems can lead; from initial frustration at not being able to express oneself, to bullying or being bullied at school, fewer job prospects and even a descent into criminality.[35][36]

The interim report highlighted a number of core issues: that speech, language and communication are not only essential life skills but fundamental human rights; that early identification of problems and intervention is important to avoid social problems later on; and that the current system of treatment is patchy, i.e. there is a need for services to be continually provided for children and families from an early age.[37][38]

Role in expenses scandal

Until 2008/09 Bercow usually claimed the maximum available amount for the 'Additional Costs Allowance' to pay for the cost of staying away from his main home. However, in 2007/08 and 2008/09 his total expenses were amongst the lowest claimed by MPs (coming 631st and 640th, respectively, out of 645 and 647).[39]

During the 2009 expenses scandal, it was revealed that Bercow changed the designation of his second home on more than one occasion – meaning that he avoided paying capital gains tax on the sale of two properties. He also claimed just under £1,000 to hire an accountant to fill in his tax returns. Bercow denied any wrongdoing, but agreed to pay £6,508 to cover any tax that he may have had to pay to HM Revenue and Customs.[40]

It was revealed in 2014 that the House of Commons authorities had destroyed all evidence of MPs' expenses claims prior to 2010. Bercow faced accusations that he had presided over what had been dubbed a "fresh cover-up" of the expenses scandal.[41]

In July 2015 Bercow was again criticised for the amount of his expenses, including a claim of £172 for a 0.7 mile chauffeur-driven journey. Andy Silvester, campaign director at the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "This is an obscene waste of money and shows appalling judgment from whoever made the arrangements."[42]

Speaker of the House of Commons

Bercow presides over the House, 2012.

Bercow had long campaigned quietly to become Speaker[43] and was touted as a successor to Michael Martin. On 20 May 2009, he officially announced his intention to stand in the Speakership election, which had been triggered by Martin's resignation, and launched his manifesto for the job.[44] In reference to his decision to stand, Bercow said: "I wanted it because I felt that there was a task to be undertaken and that's about strengthening backbench involvement and opportunity in parliament, and helping parliament get off its knees and recognise that it isn't just there as a rubber-stamping operation for the government of the day, and as necessary and appropriate to contradict and expose the government of the day."[45]

In the first round of the election on 22 June, Bercow received 179 votes – more than any other candidate, but short of the majority required for victory. In the third and final round of voting later that day, he defeated Sir George Young by 322 votes to 271,[46] and was approved by the Queen at 10 pm that night as the 157th Speaker. In accordance with convention, he rescinded his Conservative party membership.[5][47]

Bercow's election as Speaker was controversial because he is believed to have had the support of very few MPs from his former party. Conservative MPs generally viewed Bercow with distrust because of his changing political views (having moved over the years from being very right-wing to become more socially liberal, leading to clashes with past party leaders), his acceptance of an advisory role from the Labour government (a party he had often been rumoured to be on the verge of joining), his general lack of good relations with fellow MPs from the Conservatives, and his vigorous campaigning for the Speaker's job. It has been speculated that he received the votes of as few as three of his fellow Conservative MPs. However, he received the votes of a large number of Labour MPs, many of whom were angered at the way they perceived Michael Martin to have been hounded out of the job and wanted his replacement to be someone who was not a favourite of the Conservative Party.[48][49]

Bercow is the first Speaker who is Jewish,[50] the first Speaker to have been elected by an exhaustive ballot, and the first Speaker not to wear traditional court robes while presiding over the House of Commons.[51] However, in accordance with tradition, Bercow does now display his coat of arms at Speaker's House.[52]

To mark the centenary of the Parliament Act 1911, Bercow commissioned a series of lectures about the main political figures of the century. The Speaker's Lectures continue with a variety of topics such as historic parliamentarians and current affairs.

On 26 March 2015, the House of Commons defeated a government motion (introduced by former Conservative party leader and then leader of the House of Commons William Hague) to require there to be a secret ballot vote on whether Bercow remain speaker after the 2015 general election. A number of MPs described it as an underhand plot to oust Bercow, largely based on the timing of the motion just before the dissolution of Parliament, when some Labour MPs expected to oppose it had already returned to their constituencies.[53][54][55][56] In the event, Bercow was re-elected unopposed as Speaker following the general election.

On 6 February 2017, Bercow said in the house that he would be "strongly opposed" to US President Donald Trump addressing the Houses of Parliament during his planned state visit to the UK, and told MPs that "opposition to racism and sexism" were "hugely important considerations".[57] The comments proved controversial and made the headlines in many UK newspapers the following day,[58] with some such as Guardian columnist Owen Jones,[59] Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP Dennis Skinner and Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron supporting this intervention.[60] However, his comments were criticised even by some opponents of Trump (such as Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi) for being hypocritical and undermining the Speaker's neutrality,[61] and some in the government reportedly felt that Bercow had overstepped his role.[60] John Whittingdale, the Conservative MP for Maldon and a former Culture Secretary, dismissed Bercow's remarks as "playing to the gallery for as much publicity as possible",[62] and Bercow himself apologised to the Lord Speaker The Lord Fowler over a lack of consultation over his remarks.[63]

On 27 March 2018, he told off Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for referring to Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry as Baroness Nugee, stating that "it was quite frankly sexist", to which he was met with applause from MPs in the House.

2010 general election

The Speaker of the House of Commons is traditionally seen as outside party politics, and is often not challenged by the main parties at general elections, including the 2010 general election. In September 2009, Nigel Farage resigned his leadership of the UK Independence Party to stand for Bercow's Buckingham seat, asserting, "This man represents all that is wrong with British politics today. He was embroiled in the expenses saga and he presides over a Parliament that virtually does nothing."[64][65] John Stevens, another candidate, found support for his campaign from the former Independent MP Martin Bell.[66] Bercow also faced opposition from the British National Party and the Christian Party.[67]

As Bercow lacked a party endorsement and therefore a campaign team, he sought to build one and a group of his supporters known as 'Friends of Speaker Bercow' solicited donations for the campaign, aiming to raise £40,000. When one of their letters was received by a member of the UK Independence Party, the recipient referred it to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, complaining that it appeared that Bercow's fundraising campaign was operating from the Speaker's Office, which is required to remain politically neutral.[68] The Commissioner declined to launch an investigation because of the lack of evidence of involvement of the Speaker's Office.[69]

2015 and 2017 general elections

Bercow was returned as an MP in the 2015 general election. The election was notable for the 1,289 spoilt ballot papers.[70]

Following the 2017 general election, John Bercow was unanimously re-elected as Speaker of the House by Members of Parliament on 13 June 2017.[71]

Personal life

Bercow married Sally Illman in 2002 and they have three children.[2] His wife used to be a Conservative, who switched to supporting the Labour Party, campaigning for both her husband individually and Labour in the wider election in 1997, though Bercow and those close to him reject the view that she was especially influential in softening his right-wing political views.[2][72]

Bercow is a humanist, and before taking the role of Speaker was a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group.[73] When discussing the role of clergy in Parliament, he described himself in a Commons debate as "an irreligious person taking a secular interest in an important subject".[74]

Bercow has been a fan of Arsenal F.C. since January 1971 and is a season ticket holder. He always attends games with his son.[75]

Controversies

Speaker's residence controversy

Within weeks of taking office as Speaker, Bercow ordered a redecoration and refurbishment of the Speaker's grace and favour apartment in the Palace of Westminster, buying a large television and a DVD player; the work cost £20,659 and was paid for by parliament. It followed previous extensive work on the apartment under the previous Speaker.[76] Publicity was given to a bill of more than £600 for food and drink in the Palace of Westminster in April 2010, when the financial controller of the House of Commons wrote informing Bercow that there were "items which have been outstanding for at least two months" on it; it was paid later in the month.[77]

Bullying allegations

In May 2018 Bercow's former private secretary Angus Sinclair alleged, on the BBC's Newsnight programme, that Bercow had repeatedly bullied him while at work.[78] Sinclair said that he was told to sign a non-disclosure agreement when he left his post, in order to prevent him revealing Bercow's bullying. Bercow denied the claims.[79]

Titles and honours

John Bercow's arms, designed by Hubert Chesshyre

Styles of address

  • until 1997: Mr John Bercow
  • 1997–2009: Mr John Bercow MP
  • 2009–: The Right Honourable John Bercow MP

Honours

Scholastic

Chancellor, visitor, governor, and fellowships
Location Date School Position
 England 2014 – University of Bedfordshire Chancellor [81]
 England 18 July 2017 – University of Essex Chancellor [82] [83]
Honorary Degrees
Location Date School Degree
 England 2010 University of Essex Doctor of the University (D.Univ) [84] [85] [86]
 England 16 March 2013 University of Buckingham Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [87] [88]
 England 23 January 2014 De Montfort University Doctorate [89]
 England 30 January 2014 City, University of London Doctor of Science (D.Sc) [90]

References

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  81. ^ https://www.beds.ac.uk/about-us/our-people/chancellor
  82. ^ https://www.essex.ac.uk/news/2017/07/18/speaker-of-the-house-of-commons-to-become-our-sixth-chancellor
  83. ^ http://www.gazette-news.co.uk/news/15419791.Speaker_of_the_House_of_Commons_appointed_chancellor_of_Essex_University/
  84. ^ https://www1.essex.ac.uk/honorary_graduates/
  85. ^ https://www1.essex.ac.uk/honorary_graduates/documents/HG2010/johnbercow2010oration.pdf
  86. ^ https://www1.essex.ac.uk/honorary_graduates/documents/HG2010/johnbercow2010response.pdf
  87. ^ https://www.buckingham.ac.uk/graduation/honorary-graduates-2013
  88. ^ http://www.buckingham.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/John-Bercow.pdf
  89. ^ https://www.britishcouncil.org/future-leaders-connect/programme/speakers/speaker
  90. ^ https://www.city.ac.uk/graduation/honorary-graduates/honorary-graduates-chronological

Further reading

  • Bobby Friedman. Bercow, Mr Speaker: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party (2011) Gibson Square.

External links

  • Official website
  • Debrett's People of Today
  • The Speaker official Parliament website
  • Profile at Parliament of the United Kingdom
  • Contributions in Parliament at Hansard 2010–present
  • Contributions in Parliament during 2006–07 2007–08 2008–09 2009–10 at Hansard Archives
  • Contributions in Parliament at Hansard 1803–2005
  • Voting record at Public Whip
  • Record in Parliament at TheyWorkForYou
  • Profile at Westminster Parliamentary Record
  • Articles authored at Journalisted
  • APPG for Tribal Peoples – Official website
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
News articles
  • Profile: Commons Speaker, John Bercow, David Hencke, The Guardian, 22 June 2009
  • The John Bercow story, Brian Wheeler, BBC News, 24 June 2009
  • Getting the House in order, James Macintyre, Prospect magazine, 20 July 2011
  • [4], Boris Johnson told off by speaker for "sexism"
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
George Walden
Member of Parliament
for Buckingham

1997–present
Incumbent
Preceded by
Michael Martin
Speaker of the House of Commons
2009–present
Political offices
Preceded by
Oliver Letwin
Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury
2001–2002
Succeeded by
Howard Flight
Preceded by
Caroline Spelman
Shadow Secretary of State for International Development
2003–2004
Succeeded by
Alan Duncan
Order of precedence in England and Wales
Preceded by
John Sentamu
as Archbishop of York
Gentlemen
as Speaker of the House of Commons
Succeeded by
The Lord Fowler
as Lord Speaker
Order of precedence in Scotland
Preceded by
Derek Browning
as Moderator of the General Assembly
of the Church of Scotland
Gentlemen
as Speaker of the House of Commons
Succeeded by
The Lord Fowler
as Lord Speaker
Order of precedence in Northern Ireland
Preceded by
David Lidington
as Lord Chancellor
Gentlemen
as Speaker of the House of Commons
Succeeded by
The Lord Fowler
as Lord Speaker
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