Jon Craig: Don't expect John Bercow to jump before he's pushed
The Speaker is standing firm for now - but his enemies are planning further strikes in the weeks ahead.
Betty Boothroyd, the best Commons Speaker of recent times, used to bring Prime Minister’s Questions to an end by declaring cheerfully: “Time’s up!” Now more and more MPs – mostly Conservatives, it has to be said – believe time’s up for John Bercow after nearly nine years in the Speaker’s chair.
Last month Baroness Boothroyd added her hugely influential voice to the clamour for Mr Bercow to step down in mid-Parliament, as a “courtesy” to MPs. I’m told authoritatively that Betty, still a hugely respected figure in Parliament, is no fan of Mr Bercow, which doesn’t surprise me.
Since her intervention, more bullying allegations against Mr Bercow, on top of complaints about his political bias, high-handed manner and expenses, have increased the pressure on him to quit. However members of the Commons Standards Committee have just voted 3-2 against allowing Parliament's watchdog to investigate the claims.
So will he jump before he’s pushed? Not on the evidence so far. But his enemies are planning more moves against him in the weeks ahead, which could further weaken his position.
On the bullying accusations, I’m told that his behaviour towards his staff is “mercurial”, which according to the dictionary means volatile, capricious, temperamental and erratic. I’m also told by the same impeccable sources that Mr Bercow is prone to “mood swings”, which – as everyone knows – can be extremely disruptive in a working environment.
Mr Bercow’s vulnerability against a Tory plot to remove him can be traced back to a controversial interview he gave to my Sky News colleague Lewis Goodall during last year’s general election campaign.
When he was elected Speaker in 2009, succeeding the recently deceased Michael Martin at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, he said he would serve no more than nine years, the same as Mr Martin. That takes us up to June 22, in just over a month. But in a move that infuriated his critics on the Conservative benches, Mr Bercow told Lewis he now intended to serve a full five-year term in the new parliament.
"I had originally indicated an intention to serve for approximately nine years,” he acknowledged in his interview with Lewis in his Buckingham constituency. But explaining his change of mind, he said: “If I may legitimately say so, I made that commitment eight years ago, it was before the Fixed Term Parliament Act, it was before the EU referendum."
Although Mr Sinclair was not the first former staff member to accuse Mr Bercow of bullying, his allegation has dramatically turned up the heat on the Speaker. Suddenly it wasn’t just a few malcontents on the Tory back benches plotting against him. There was clearly alarm at the highest levels of government too.
Every Wednesday after PMQs the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, accompanied by a Tory spin doctor, takes part in a “huddle”, an unofficial post-PMQs briefing in the Lower Gallery at the back of the Commons chamber.
On the day after Mr Sinclair’s explosive interview on BBC2’s Newsnight, the PM’s spokesman was asked for Theresa May’s reaction to the latest allegations against the Speaker. Suddenly and dramatically, he reached for his big red folder and opened it up. There were gasps of excitement and anticipation. It was immediately obvious that he had a statement prepared!
“The Prime Minister has been very clear from the start that there is no place for bullying or harassment in the workplace including parliament,” he said. “It’s a matter for parliament to decide how to proceed.”
And then he said: “But the latest allegations are concerning and should be properly investigated.”
The PM’s disapproval could not have been more clear. We already know that vicar’s daughter Theresa takes a dim view of inappropriate conduct by senior politicians, judging by the way she dumped Stephen Crabb, Sir Michael Fallon and even her close friend Damian Green from her Cabinet.
The Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, appears to be backing moves against the Speaker too, declaring in a Sunday Times interview that the bullying problem “arguably begins at the top”.
She also appeared to hint that she believes Mr Bercow’s time is up, in her response to a call for a Commons debate on the Speaker by his most outspoken backbench critic, Tory MP James Duddridge. "I certainly think, Mr Speaker, you have served this House for a very good number of years and to the best way you possibly can and I am grateful to you for that,” she said.
That could be interpreted as the Leader of the Commons saying that he has had a good innings, but thank you very much and now it’s time for you to go.
After that response to Mr Duddridge, a tetchy Mr Bercow leapt to his feet and slapped him down, reminding him that he was re-elected unanimously after last year’s June election. And he told the Rochford and Southend East MP bluntly that if he had wanted to oppose his re-election he could have done so then, but he didn’t.
In another significant move, Maria Miller, a former Cabinet minister who now chairs the Women and Equalities Committee of MPs, has written to the House authorities about gagging clauses in the pay-off deals for former employees like Mr Sinclair.
And the latest complaint concerning Mr Bercow, from the civil service union the First Division Association, is that Parliamentary staff have been asked to help provide research for MPs defending him against the bullying allegations. The union claims staff from the House of Commons’ media office worked with the Speaker’s office to provide briefings on the bullying claims for pro-Bercow MPs as he fights calls for a formal inquiry.
Then there are Mr Bercow’s expenses. The latest disclosure, following a Freedom of Information request, is that taxpayers paid more than £1,600 for a new shower unit for his grace-and-favour apartment, £420 on kitchen chairs and £95 on fixing the net curtains in the flat where his family's nanny lives rent-free.
The latest threat to Mr Bercow comes from the unlikely figure of Tory grandee Sir Peter Bottomley, one of the MPs who dragged him to the Chair in the old-fashioned ritual when he was re-elected last June. He has called on Mr Bercow to abide by the promise he made in 2009 that “in any event” he would only serve nine years. And if he doesn’t? Mr Bercow’s enemies are urging Sir Peter to table a motion of no confidence.
All of which means the battle for the succession is already being fought. The popular Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who stood in at PMQs while Mr Bercow attended Michael Martin’s funeral last week and was loudly cheered by MPs at the end, starts as favourite. But the self-appointed “Mother of the House”, Harriet Harman, also wants the job.
Earlier this week, in a Commons adjournment debate on the contribution to football of Arsenal’s long-serving manager Arsene Wenger, Arsenal fanatic Mr Bercow hit out at Wenger critic Piers Morgan. “There is a tendency sometimes for people on social media to volunteer their opinions with an insistence in inverse proportion to their knowledge of the subject matter under discussion,” Mr Bercow said.
Morgan led claims among Arsenal fans that Wenger, who has quit after 22 years, stayed on too long. MPs are now making exactly the same criticism of John Bercow, who wore his Arsenal tie in PMQs this week.
At the moment, he’s unlikely to follow the Frenchman’s example and bow to the pressure to quit, however, even if a majority of MPs agree with Betty Boothroyd that time’s up for him. Instead, MPs who want Mr Bercow out are likely to have to drag him physically from the Chair, just like they dragged him to it when he was elected. But don’t rule it out.