His fists were bunched and trembling, his eyes popping, his body physically shaking with fury.
For more than a quarter of an hour he ranted, loudly enough to be audible from the office next door. And the cause of this reported towering outburst from the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow? Not some constitutional outrage perpetrated by a government riding roughshod over due process; not even the high stakes of the parliamentary battle over Brexit, which made him a hero to so many remainers. According to a withering report from an independent parliamentary appeals panel this week, which deemed him both a bully and a “repeatedly dishonest” witness, he thought the clerk of the House, Lord Lisvane, had put a paper on the agenda for an upcoming meeting without his knowledge.
You don’t have to work in politics to feel a pang of recognition for the “stomach-clenching anxiety” the incoming Speaker’s secretary, Kate Emms, described feeling, on seeing her new boss publicly belittle her outgoing predecessor, Angus Sinclair. On Fleet Street when I was starting out, being screamed at on a daily basis was simply regarded as routine. A famously expletive-ridden executive once delivered such a loud dressing-down that someone on another floor was widely rumoured to have called security, convinced the building was actually under attack. But bullying happens everywhere, from school staff rooms to factory floors, Premier League dressing rooms to the NHS. The TV dramatisation of Adam Kay’s medical memoir This Is Going to Hurt captures the contempt heaped by some senior doctors on junior ones, who in turn dish it out to even more lowly medical students as if they were all still at a boarding school run by particularly sadistic prefects. The series is a black comedy, but management by fear isn’t funny.
Being bullied at work is every bit as miserable as being bullied at school; the same sick sense of foreboding every Monday morning, the same constant nervous vigilance, and often the same irrational sense of shame. Months of being publicly picked on can reduce the most confident person to a puddle of doubt and self-loathing. Tell someone they’re useless often enough and they can start to believe it, or at least to worry that complaining will probably be interpreted as weakness. Reporting an MP for rudeness, one anonymous senior clerk explained to the panel, “can only end up with you being seen as in some way inadequate”.
And Bercow’s liberal public persona gave him the perfect ideological cover for those private, spittle-flecked rages, which according to Sinclair once saw him smash a mobile phone to smithereens on a desk. He pitched himself as “a moderniser, a reformer, a progressive change-maker” whose first great modernising project had effectively been himself. Having started his career on the hard right of the Conservative party, he ended it by burnishing his feminist credentials and attacking what he depicted as stuffy old reactionaries at Westminster. He was a creative and activist Speaker who pushed through some welcome changes, from boosting the power of backbenchers and hosting receptions for gay rights charities in his grand Westminster apartments, to opening a parliamentary nursery.
But it’s an unusual kind of feminist who stands accused – as Lisvane wrote in a resignation letter he drafted but didn’t send – of pushing the first ever female Speaker’s secretary out of her job, “damaging her health and making a sham of your alleged commitment to diversity”. And modernising zeal doesn’t explain why Bercow, who has dismissed the report’s findings as a “kangaroo court” verdict, reportedly threw a tantrum at an airport when told he couldn’t take toothpaste in his hand luggage. True progressivism means treating others with basic respect, even if you do think they are fellow middle-aged white men who (as he once reportedly told Lisvane) “come here with your privileged background and offer your opinion”. As the panel concluded, historians will judge whether he was one of parliament’s great reformers but “there was no need to act as a bully in order to achieve that”. He should, they felt, be banned for life from having a parliamentary pass.
Andrea Leadsom, the former leader of the House of Commons he famously dismissed as “stupid”, deserves some retrospective credit for doggedly pursuing bullying charges not just against Bercow but more widely. Yet even after BBC Newsnight ran a detailed account of his behaviour in 2018, too many MPs protected him. At a critical point in the battle over Brexit, Bercow had found parliamentary time for MPs opposed to it, and grateful remainers closed ranks. The former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett was at least honest enough to spell the deal out. Abuse was terrible and should be stopped, she said, but “yes, if it comes to it, the constitutional future of this country, the most difficult decision we’ve made for hundreds of years, yes it trumps bad behaviour”. Perhaps even now some feel this trade-off was justified. But it still beggars belief that Jeremy Corbyn recommended Bercow, who defected to Labour after leaving the Speaker’s chair, for a peerage.
The truth is that bullying flourishes in badly run institutions, under managers who don’t know any other way to manage, and where people have been browbeaten into believing that this is somehow normal. But it isn’t actually normal to shout and swear and throw things; it isn’t normal to wake up every day feeling sick at the thought of going into work. Routine hazing of the kind Adam Kay has described is no way for juniors to learn their craft, and nor should explosive rage be the price you pay for working at the heart of power in Westminster. Of all the workplaces in the world, the one that makes the rules for everyone else’s office life should have had the gumption to say so.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist