‘Much, much too young for a Speaker’ was the well-versed phrase during John Bercow MP’s campaign to be elected Speaker of the House of Commons back in 2009. More than seven years in his Speakership, John Bercow came to Reading University to talk about his now-vast experiences at the centre of the last two Parliaments.
Whilst expectations for what visiting politicians will discuss in any detail are usually very low, it would transpire only three days later that not only is Bercow rather honest about his thoughts outside of legislation, but he definitely knows how to hit the national press with a big headline.
Holly Gibbs and I spent the afternoon with Speaker Bercow, discussing a number of topics whilst attending laid-on social events and in preparation for an evening speaking engagement. The conversation was casual, looking quickly over Bercow’s time at Essex University where he gained a 1st Class Honours in Government.
On the subject of student political engagement, Bercow held the suspicion that student politics has been declining long before he himself went to university: “There are people that say that it was not as noisy or as heavily participated in 10 years before when I was in Essex.”
During a classroom discussion later on, Bercow relayed how student priorities had moved on: “The job market is increasingly more competitive and you have to be better qualified than ever before to get the best job and the best opportunities,” and how this caused concern for the student voice in politics.
In the 12-year gap between leaving university and beginning his path to the Speaker’s Chair as an MP, Bercow suggests the best course of action, and the one he took, is “to do something else other than politics first. Whether that’s a career in law, business or public relations”. From the average politician’s view, it’s now more likely to be seen as a negative to simply have a Civil Service or managerial public sector background.
However, after a further 12 years in waiting as a backbench MP, another “completely entitled to their opinion, though obviously not in favour of me winning” suggested that the 46-year old Bercow needed to prove himself yet more. Whilst quizzing him on the best attributes for his potential successor, “a good memory, strong on your feet, and versatile” were the first thoughts to spring to mind. The question of when this successor could be in the Chair was quickly deflected, Bercow leaning towards 2020’s General Election as the more better time to step down, rather than the previously promised 2018. And up until this point, controversy had run amiss over the course of four hours. Cue the evening Q&A…
“I am not looking forward to Mr Trump’s visit” is as short an answer as you can get in a diplomatic tone from the Speaker, who voiced his concerns on Monday over the proposed State Visit later this year. The longer quote was more along the lines of: “It is scary, how such xenophobic, racist, bigoted politics can come to power; it is not something that has to be tolerated”. A refreshingly honest answer that may be nice to hear from someone of such authority, but not the words many in Parliament would consider adequate, the statement went public Monday.
There have already been calls to force a Vote of No Confidence to the House, a ‘coup-ish’ plot Bercow may find reminiscent of another unhappy time, back in 2015, when a number of the Conservative frontbench put together an 11th-hour procedural vote over Speaker elections. There were small servings of criticism for the people involved in response to the question: “Who do you like the least, Cameron or Gove?” It was evident the Speaker thought the plot was “regretful,” but cited the poor relationship he held with the Prime Minister as the catalyst, alongside ‘differing views’ to Chief Whip Michael Gove, whom he repeatedly remarked was “chuntering from a sedentary position”.
Bercow refuses to look beyond 2020, though there is yet to be a Speaker not elevated to the House of Lords upon retirement. However, bearing in mind Monday’s national coverage of the Bercow’s Trump comment, it looks like he’ll be asking for Order! for quite a while to come.