Inside Story

John Bercow and “the Aussie woman”

The ripples of an unlikely row over a parliamentary appointment reach from London to Canberra, says David Hayes

David Hayes 29 September 2014 2305 words

The real target: House of Commons speaker John Bercow is loathed by some Tory MPs. Catherine Bebbington/UK Parliament

After Scotland’s colourful referendum, British politics resumes in shades of grey. The annual conferences of Britain’s three main parties, a prelude to the May 2015 election, began with Labour’s comatose offering in Manchester (20–24 September). The event compounded doubts about leader Ed Miliband’s capacity, or even wish, to reach beyond Labour’s core support. His latest look-Dad-no-notes speech, sixty-eight minutes long, managed to omit mention of the deficit and immigration, two vital policy areas. It was also cursory on the linked themes of localism and English devolution, which threaded Labour’s own policy review, published after immense effort only in July. The sophomoric and conceited Miliband thus gave David Cameron’s Conservatives a perfect script for their own gathering (28 September–1 October), though on its eve another Tory defection to the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, forced a late rewrite.

North of the border, the inquests are in full swing following the 55–45 per cent vote against independence on 18 September. On the “yes” side, all stages of grief are mangled up in blue. The denialist reactions – inflected by a need to blame (including the Scots themselves), find a conspiracy, or hasten to a refight – are trapped in the moment, the accepting ones based on evidence and alert to new possibilities. It will take time for the landscape after battle to clear. The pro-independence Scottish National Party reports an astonishing surge in membership (around 30,000 in ten days, more than doubling its size.) Yet a long, dark night of the soul could also prove therapeutic. So might a reading of the communist historian Christopher Hill’s late work The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries, which looks at the paths taken by radicals of the English civil war and commonwealth of the 1640s–50s after monarchy was restored. (The bleak options included saint, sinner, and sell-out). Whatever comes next in Scotland will be not a replay but a reformulation.

Anyone seeking colour in this bleached political environment might find it in an unlikely source: the appointment of a new chief executive (or clerk) to the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, a chamber best known for the televised weekly theatricals of prime minister’s question time. The “under clerk of the parliaments” works under the speaker of the House, and is responsible for managing its business and giving advice on its constitutional protocols (here Erskine May’s 500-page Treatise, first published in 1844, is the sacred text). The incumbent, Sir Robert Rogers, had chosen to retire a year early – after forty-two years in the Commons’ administration – with effect from August 2014; after a process led by the speaker, John Bercow, his successor was named as Carol Mills, head of the department of parliamentary services, or DPS, in Canberra.

So far, so unremarkable. True, the United Kingdom parliament is still a heavily English, male, class- and precedent-bound institution, and the choice of an Australian, and a woman, to a senior post might, even today, be expected to provoke the sort of hyperventilation hard to imagine in other areas of life (witness the examples of the Thomson Reuters executive Kimberley Cole or the York University economics professor Karen Mumford). But in this case the dismay that greeted the premature departure of the familiar, respected, elaborately bewhiskered Rogers was amplified into outrage at his replacement by une femme mystérieuse d’australie.

The real target of these emotions was John Bercow. The preternaturally bumptious Commons speaker is the object both of intense dislike (particularly from a sizeable number of Conservative MPs and journalists) and gleeful media lampoonery (focused variously on his short stature, orotund speech, official extravagance, and wife Sally). In their public effect the two kinds of reaction tend to play against other, the concentrated scorn somewhat blunted by the viral ridicule, the space between them an air-pocket for the irrepressible Bercow to go on his merry way.

Until now. For Rogers’s retirement and Mills’s selection have given the core anti-Bercow enragés a cause around which to rally wider support, using arguments over procedural correctness that threaten the speaker’s own flank. Tory MPs depicted the former clerk as the victim of his boss’s alleged foul-mouthed bad temper; his deputy and obvious successor, David Natzler, as the casualty of a stitched-up recruitment process; and Carol Mills as the poorly qualified beneficiary of the speaker’s preferment.

This inviting narrative led senior MPs and members of the House of Lords to join the callfor a re-run of the appointment. Among them was the popular former speaker Betty (Lady) Boothroyd, who – recalling the need for the monarch's formal approval – said that it “would be an embarrassment to the crown, to government and to parliament to put this name before the Queen.” A story in the Daily Mail took up Natzler’s torch, quoting a source that described him as an “Old Etonian,” but one of “humble immigrant stock” who “knows the job inside out.” Despite these credentials, the source said, “the politically correct obsession of some people means the Aussie woman is the favourite.”

An unexpected boost arrived when the waves of this parochial mess began to break on the fatal shore. Britain’s press, ever on the hunt for a juicy new angle on the John Bercow roadshow, was gifted an email to Robert Rogers from Rosemary Laing, a former colleague of Mills at the DPS, whose shadowy details of a bureaucratic bunfight in Canberra were less enticing than the charge that Mills had “no parliamentary knowledge or experience” and was therefore unsuited to the House of Commons role. Mills, who had been properly silent until that point, responded by saying she was “disappointed to read an email reportedly from the clerk of the Senate, one of my peers at the Parliament of Australia, in the media,” and that “It would not be appropriate for me to comment further in a personal capacity at this time.”

Bercow’s balloon was losing air, but was saved from a hard landing by a classic parliamentary compromise: a “modest pause” in the recruitment process, and a review by a House committee into how the “demanding twin roles both of procedural advisor to the House and of its chief executive officer” might be separated. Bercow doesn’t do chastened, but his statement in the chamber on 1 September was uncharacteristically subdued. Mills was not mentioned. The implication was twofold. First, that the job that had been advertised, which was both managerial (of the Commons’s 2000 staff) and advisory (on constitutional matters), was to disappear. Second, that Mills – who, critics of this phantom figure were suggesting, had “never heard of Erskine May” and would be “totally out of her depth” in the job to which she had been appointed – would be shunted into the managerial role, and no doubt be grateful for it.

There the matter rests until the committee, less pliable than Bercow’s initial appointment panel, reports. Carol Mills’s professional future remains in the balance. Her experience of and views on the whole shebang will be interesting. But if the affair does end with a new job specification for the clerk of the House of Commons (a role first designated in 1363) then she will, without setting foot in the chamber, have earned a place in Britain’s democratic history – and at least an intriguing footnote in the seventh edition of Robert Rogers’s standard textbook, How Parliament Works, due in 2015.

The stakes for John Bercow are also high. His enemies are enjoying his discomfort, some weighing the odds of a challenge to replace him (which would depend on the 2015 election result). Yet the magnificent loathing he provokes among a minority of Tory MPs and hostile newspapers may mislead. Other parliamentarians, notably women, highlight the reforms he has overseen since June 2009.

These include supporting the independence of select committees from executive influence, allowing more short-notice questions (which mandate the presence of a minister in the chamber), calling newer MPs to speak, providing for greater educational outreach and (via a nursery) care of small children, introducing pro-equality networks for women and minorities, and forming a commission on digital democracy. Indeed, such improvements – partly a response to the damaging expenses scandal of 2009, which tainted scores of parliamentarians – extend to opening the process of recruitment for senior positions, such as the new Commons clerk.

The fifty-one year old Bercow, then, is a hyperactive moderniser. This alone earns him suspicion from neophobes, an influential segment of any British institution, but even more of the Houses of Parliament, where tradition, from the Victorian Gothic architecture to ponderous conventions of language, hangs heavy. Add the speaker’s manifest flaws – partisanship, pomposity, irascibility (the cameras record at least one spectacular loss of temper, Hansard many more) – and the seeds of disaffection, above all among Conservatives, multiply.

What makes the story more intimate is that the bugs in the Bercow software derive from a Tory source code. (Bobby Friedman’s book, Mr. Speaker: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party, published in 2011, is a thorough biography.) For the young northwest London boy, whose Jewish father sold cars and gentile mother worked as a secretary, was for most of his early career an unbending Thatcherite right-winger, seeing free markets, a strong state and disciplinary moralism as the true path. As a student activist (at ultra-left Essex University), local councillor, and media figure in the 1980s, his hard right credo – advanced with ultra-formal, apodictic, utterly infuriating politesse – won him special odium among a combative and well dug-in left.

Margaret Thatcher’s hurricane decade – its energy release coming from a fusion of conservative restoration and capitalist revolution – offered the promise of liberation to many people, like Bercow, from working class or lower middle class backgrounds. The fall of the Soviet empire confirmed the rightness of the track. Though zealous true believers could always prove unsettling for the Conservative Party (a student group chaired by Bercow was disbanded in 1986), even more when it fitfully sought to craft a post-Thatcher message in the 1990s, it also needed their conviction and energy.

Bercow was elected to the safe Tory seat of Buckingham in 1997, and served in various shadow ministerial posts until 2004. But his growing social liberalism made for an awkward relationship with colleagues, even as David Cameron’s election as Tory leader in 2005 launched the party on its own journey of ostensible modernisation after a third election defeat. By then Bercow was in the process of stress testing his relationship with fellow Conservatives from the back benches, always from a seat in good view of the cameras.

Paul Goodman, editor of Conservative Home, offers a witty, more-in-affection-than-sorrow diagnosis of Bercow’s move “from near the far right of the party to the very end of its left.” While “crack teams of psychiatrists have been commissioned to explore size, sex, Sally and anti-semitism, sometimes all at once,” Goodman’s view is that his tantrums with former colleagues from the speaker’s chair derive ultimately “from being spurned by those who wouldn’t applaud him, promote him, consider him as a future leader.”

In any event, from the mid 2000s Bercow embarked on a campaign to reach the remaining parliamentary summit open to him: the speakership. The post usually goes to MPs noted for their ecumenism, and here Bercow had a lot to live down. But he cultivated Labour with an insistent – and this being Bercow, also unblushing – display of his new, progressive and compassionate, persona.

His opportunity came with the expenses debacle, which forced the resignation of the mediocre Labour placeman Michael Martin, who had succeeded Boothroyd as speaker in 2000. Bercow’s great moving left show had its reward when he defeated the Tory patrician Sir George Young and, with the charade of reluctance that is part of the Commons ritual, was dragged by two colleagues to his nirvana.

The speaker’s opponents have had five years to seethe and plot,each spat or lordly putdown from the chair creating another potential recruit. The Robert Rogers–Carol Mills controversy has at last enabled them to reach the righteous as well as the bitter in the Commons, an odd alliance that may secure an equal share of the spoils. “The Aussie woman,” however, deserves both her own say and substantial recompense for what she has been put through.

John Bercow will, for now, survive. In part because he has spent his time as speaker cultivating many more friends than he has made enemies. In part because most MPs, and maybe citizens, look past his transparent faults and see him as working to uphold the interests of parliament. In part because, like the urchin-to-mayor character in Arnold Bennett’s 1911 novel The Card, he is “identified with the great cause of cheering us all up.” Democracies, in the end, also need colour.

The once-famous parodic history of Britain, 1066 and All That, published in 1930, rendered the monarchist–parliamentarist war of the 1640s as the “utterly memorable Struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive).” That notion casts a long beam. Westminster’s parliamentary democracy is withered but still pumping, and in the long effort to renew it John Bercow, warts and all, is on the side of light. •