Unspeakable by John Bercow review – now who’s out of order?

John Bercow was a reforming Speaker, but is often blind to his own flaws in this verbose and wrathful memoir

From the age of 12, shortly after starting at what he calls a rough comprehensive in Finchley, north London, John Bercow was afflicted with severe acne. He tells us that he has never been “worried or embarrassed about being short or lacking in physical strength. But I was utterly miserable about my skin.” Cruel schoolmates dubbed him “Crater Face”. The affliction persisted through university. “The psychological damage, the damage to my self-confidence, was considerable and lasted for years.” It was compounded by his parents breaking up after many years of terrible rows and acute bronchial asthma destroying his dreams of becoming a professional tennis player. The young Bercow was “an insecure, sad, lost soul” and “an angry young man”.

It has often struck me that a large proportion of our senior politicians were psychologically wounded when young and seek out the political stage in the hope of gaining the approbation denied to them as children. In few is this as obvious as in the case of the former Speaker. This is memoir as both therapy and revenge. Vengeance on all those who have crossed him during a contentious career. Therapy by trumpeting to the world that “Crater Face” defied those bullying classmates by rising to occupy parliament’s high chair for a decade.

It was a peculiar journey. The young Bercow’s first allegiance was to the repulsive right. In his late teens, he made what he now calls a “shameful and obnoxious” decision to join the Monday Club, an ugly outfit that shared his father’s adoration for Enoch Powell and championed white minority dictatorship in South Africa and what was then Rhodesia. “Here I was, a Jewish boy… sidling up to racists.”

He was less extreme, but still a man very much of the right, when he got to the Commons at his third attempt and adopted the role of attention-seeking, hyperactive backbench “attack dog”, barking loudly but ineffectively at the Labour government of Tony Blair. This is another period of his life that he now contemplates with mortification.

Then a new Bercow emerged, one increasingly out of sympathy with the Tories. So much so that he was sounded out about defecting to Labour. He describes his transformation from Europe-hating “rightwing Thatcherite” to “liberal leftie” more than he explains it. The reader is left unclear to what extent this unusual conversion was influenced by his tempestuous on-off relationship with the Labour-supporting Sally. She eventually became his wife only to later humiliate him by having an affair with one of his cousins.

Though he doesn’t explicitly acknowledge this, he redirected his ambitions towards the Speakership when he realised that he had little chance of frontbench advancement and secured the chair against the wishes of David Cameron and with the help of Labour MPs.

The book argues persuasively that he was a reforming Speaker who strove to modernise the Commons. He overcame the resistance of the fogeyish tendency to establish a nursery for the use of MPs with small children. He joined the fight to improve staff pay and conditions. MPs on maternity leave gained the right to vote by proxy. He played a critical role in the inspirational appointment of Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who became a charismatic ambassador for parliament as its first female and first non-white chaplain. This was one of several appointments that helped make Westminster look a little more like the country that it is supposed to represent. He claims deserved credit for being generous in the granting of “urgent questions”, which the opposition can use to force ministers to answer to the Commons at times when they would prefer to hide from scrutiny.

His Speakership was also a blighted one, accompanied by mounting allegations that there was a bullying culture in parliament on his watch and that he was guilty of it himself. He has been accused of bullying two of his private secretaries, Kate Emms and Angus Sinclair. Lord Lisvane, who served as clerk of the Commons under Bercow, recently submitted a formal complaint to the parliamentary commissioner for standards, which is understood to accuse him of bullying and humiliating staff. Lt-Gen David Leakey, a former Black Rod who clashed with Bercow, has made further accusations of intimidation and terrorising behaviour, saying: “He would fly into a rage, the red mist would descend… jumping up and down and bawling out.”

Bercow denies he is a bully and in this book presents himself as the victim of scheming officials. They, he claims, wanted to take over the Speaker’s office to pack it “with their Oxbridge-educated clones” and promote their own influence.

We can safely say that he has a temper, and it can be a nasty one, because it was often displayed from the Speaker’s chair. He made some unnecessary enemies among MPs by being spectacularly rude to those with whom he tangled in the chamber. This fed the accusation that he was less the Commons’ neutral “umpire” and more a self-regarding showboater driven by a craving to be the star of the parliamentary show. Always quick to rebuke MPs and ministers who went on too long, this was not a rule he extended to his own frequent and windy interventions. “Mum would joke that Dad would never use one word where one hundred would do, and I have inherited that prolixity.” You can say that again – and he does: “Brevity is not my strong suit.” The voice of this book will be familiar to those who have seen Bercow bloviating from the Speaker’s throne: verbose, often repetitious, frequently mottled with rage and in love with the sound of himself. “I make no apology for telling the truth” is a typical example of self-puffing prose.

The book is disappointingly short of stories about political life that might be revealing or amusing to the general reader. When he does tell an anecdote, it is invariably self-serving. There is a game of tennis with Boris Johnson. Bercow archly tells us: “He took his 6-0 6-0 6-0 defeat with very good grace.”

Unspeakable is stronger when he defends his controversial procedural rulings during the long parliamentary battles over Brexit. He makes a compelling case that he had a duty as Speaker to help the legislature to assert its rights against an executive attempting to railroad Brexit legislation.

Many in his former party hate him for that – and he hates them right back. While commending “moderation and good humour in the use of language”, he displays neither quality in a series of poison pen portraits of senior Conservatives. William Hague is “buttoned-up, inscrutable, a cold fish… impersonal, mechanical… a weirdo… a hack and an ex-teenage nerd”. Michael Howard’s “peculiar distinction was to combine coldness and oiliness in equal measure”. Andrea Leadsom, another to accuse him of bullying, is “bigoted”, “deluded”, “feeble and sinister”. Johnson is “a passably adequate politician in an age not replete with them”.

He is most splenetic about Cameron: “born with a silver trolley service in his mouth”. The former prime minister gets the wrathful loathing of a state-educated, prickly outsider towards a public school-educated, smoothie insider. “Insubstantial, lightweight, someone who saw politics as a game that it was his inherited duty, and right, to play and win… sniffy, supercilious and deeply snobbish.”

These judgments on other politicians are as unsubtle as his loud neckwear. They would be a better read if they had been written with more wit and nuance. There’s nothing original in the suggestion that Michael Gove is “oleaginous” nor fresh about describing Theresa May as “dull as ditchwater”. And when he pronounces one rival guilty of “medal-winning pomposity”, his fellow politicians will collapse with laughter at Bercow’s epic lack of self-awareness.

• Unspeakable: The Autobiography by John Bercow is published by W&N (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15


Andrew Rawnsley

The GuardianTramp

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