One of John Bercow’s unfortunate subordinates, recalling how “spectacularly” the former Commons Speaker lost his temper, compared the transformation to “Jekyll and Hyde”.
Although Bercow has objected to her account (“the suggestion that I waved my arms… with spittle coming from my mouth is disgusting, offensive and untrue”) and called the investigation “amateurish” and based on “tittle-tattle”, the comparison is probably one of the more forgiving lines in the report that the Commons’ independent expert panel has entitled, rather beautifully, The Conduct of Mr John Bercow.
For, if Bercow could behave despicably, the idea that he had a wholly delightful alter ego called Mr Speaker might suggest that his many Commons admirers weren’t simply duped by his rewarding transformation from Enoch Powell fan into a champion of diversity and inclusion. Maybe, like the inhuman Mr Hyde and decent Dr Jekyll (“one of your fellows who do what they call good”), Bercow really could be both things at the same time? Perhaps it was possible for the man David Lammy called an “intergalactic hero” to double as the “serial bully” of the new report? Not that Bercow limited himself to that: “The respondent has lied extensively to try and avoid the damning reality of the truth,” the panel found.
To toggle between the panel’s conclusions and the Commons effusions when Bercow finally left in 2019 can certainly feel like reading about two separate people. “Your humanity and personal touch will never be forgotten” was typical, along with “you are an extraordinary man”; “thank you for being such a good human being”. The person who we know to have been “offensive, malicious and insulting” to one Commons staffer, “leaving the complainant feeling undermined, humiliated and denigrated”, would himself leave Westminster, according to Thangam Debbonaire, “billowed up on a cloud of love and admiration from us all”.
Elsewhere though, it’s clearly the same person, different audience. Staff described Bercow mimicking them “by way of mocking caricature”. For admirers, such turns made him all the more adorable. “You have your talent – that of mimicry, your voices and all that stuff,” said the Labour MP Barry Sheerman.
Like most workplace bullies, Bercow appears to have monstered selectively, picking moments and people, never inadvertently slipping like Jekyll into Hyde mode (“I was seized again with those indescribable sensations that heralded the change”). “My own personal experience is different to the things I read in the report,” said non-victim Emily Thornberry, in 2018, as if this were a reason not to act on other people’s allegations.
If such unquestioning commitment now seems hard to credit, it could be worth considering that the trait of Machiavellianism has been strongly associated with perpetrators of workplace bullying, with dishonest Machiavellians “the biggest bullies of all”.
“It is for historians to judge,” says the newest report on Bercow’s behaviour, “whether the respondent was a successful reforming Speaker of the House of Commons. However, there was no need to act as a bully to achieve that aim.”
The Labour party, which finally suspended Bercow last week, has been slow to reach agreement. In 2018, Margaret Beckett had wanted him to stay as Speaker because Brexit “trumps bad behaviour”. Thornberry, not that she’d witnessed bullying, could nonetheless see things from the bully’s perspective: “I appreciate that there must be times when it is extremely frustrating trying to get, trying to drag the House of Commons into the 21st century.”
To be fair to Thornberry, her implied distinction between bog-standard bullying and a justifiable, virtuous kind is one widely in use. In fact, for some of our most active social justice advocates, the message of the Bercow report, that all workplace bullying is bad, regardless of the visionary claims of the perpetrators, must be distinctly unwelcome. Must progressives deny themselves even occasional name-calling and intimidation?
Sheerman, a former chair of the all-party parliamentary group on bullying, remains defiant. Bercow, he tweeted, was “a great reforming Speaker of the House of Commons who deserves our thanks & respect”.
As for the Conservatives, a renewed enthusiasm for bullying has, alas, prevented them glorying as fully as they might have wished in Labour’s Bercow difficulties. It’s tricky, after all, to ridicule Labour hypocrisy on workplace respect when the current home secretary is, as confirmed by an official report, the most powerful bully in the land.
Lest Priti Patel’s survival be explained as a regrettable necessity, dictated purely by the shortage of comparably affectless candidates, the party has further illustrated its commitment to dignity at work by bullying Kathryn Stone, the standards commissioner tasked with investigating bullying. Kwasi Kwarteng said she should “decide [on] her position”. Mark Spencer, the former whip accused of bullying lowlier MPs, is now leader of the house. On the backbenches, Daniel Kawczynski stands up for brutes by, having apologised for bullying, saying he didn’t mean it.
Actually, if Andrea Leadsom (who was once insulted by the Speaker) was right to demand Bercow’s exclusion from Labour membership, and others justifiably question his professorship at Royal Holloway University of London, what is Patel doing in her – in any – job?
At his public resignation from the Home Office, her permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, mentioned allegations of belittling, shouting and swearing, an “atmosphere of fear”. Boris Johnson then ignored the conclusion of Sir Alex Allan, his adviser on ministerial standards, that Patel’s conduct amounted to bullying. Allan resigned. Rutnam later received a settlement of £340,000, with £30,000 in costs.
If it has always been obvious that normalising bullying and trashing codes of conduct extract a social cost, we are still learning how much suffering and shame comes of government by bullies in a humanitarian crisis. Patel’s failures of empathy and twisted notions of acceptable behaviour now shape the national response to freezing, bombed-out Ukrainian families, as well as to refugees in dinghies. When investigated for in-person bullying, Patel said (inaccurately) that nobody told her it was wrong. What’s her excuse this time?
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist