Jonathan Isaby reviews Bercow: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party by Bobby Friedman, which is published on April 14th by Gibson Square books at £17.99.
If you were hoping that this first, unauthorised biography of the Speaker of the House of Commons would be full of shocking, never-before-told revelations from his past, I fear you will be somewhat disappointed.
But as an exercise in pulling together everything we know about Bercow's life story in one place, reminding the reader of events and incidents that may have long slipped from their memory, it is an extremely readable 244 pages.
To Friedman's credit, he has uncovered some details about Bercow's Romanian-born grandfather which have never been published before; and I was particularly impressed that he has also tracked down footage of several early TV appearances by the youthful Bercow. These include his first ever TV appearance, in the audience on BBC1's Question Time in January 1981 (aged 18), when he publicly berated Barbara Castle; and another from 1989 when he and a certain Sally Illman (the future Mrs B and then an avowed Tory) stood alongside one another previewing Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party conference speech for the BBC's coverage of the event.
In the main, however, the book is based on information about events which is already in the public domain, albeit with added commentary from friends and foes alike along the way, and (like the biographical works of his BBC colleague Michael Crick, from whom there is an approving quote on the dust jacket), there are hundreds of footnotes and references.
I should declare an interest: I have been a friend of John Bercow for over a decade, but was somewhat surprised not to have been approached by the author as he went about writing the book, despite being one of the few Tories to be a very public and vocal supporter of his. There are a number of others who I was likewise surprised to learn were not consulted. So perhaps I feel that his research has not been as meticulous as it ought to have been. Friedman says he has interviewed over 100 "friends and fiends" over the course of nearly two years, yet there are certainly sections of the book which are patchy in their detail and not all those interviewees appear to have provided a great deal of insight: in the passage on the Bercows' wedding at the House of Commons in 2002, for instance, it is recorded that "The crypt was packed out and in the words of one guest, 'Sally looked rather pretty'."
The young Bercow is not portrayed especially sympathetically in the book: he is depicted as a rather precocious boy with his interest in politics and reading the newspaper whilst still in short trousers, not to mention his reported inability to find a girlfriend as a teenager. That seems unfair – not least because all of that I can directly relate to myself in my own younger years! – and at least Bercow had the added diversion of his time practising tennis, at which he excelled in his youth.
The book records his first forays into active politics: his involvement in the Monday Club and the Federation of Conservative Students, and his unsuccessful parliamentary candidacies in Motherwell South in 1987 and Bristol South in 1992, where local activists who worked with him on the campaigns remember him with particular affection. You follow his journey through his time on Lambeth Council and his spells working in public affairs and as a special adviser, before his famous helicopter trip which allowed him to attend two Tory selection meetings on one night, the second of which was in Buckingham, which he has represented in Parliament since 1997.
There is then, of course, the political journey on which Bercow embarked from Thatcherite young Turk on entering the Commons to liberal, Ken Clarke-supporting Tory less than a decade later. Whilst a number of Bercow's detractors have come out of the woodwork to carp and criticise, Friedman's overall conclusions about his subject are not entirely negative. Most significantly, he is commendably positive about his performance to date as Speaker: "The signs so far are very promising… he has, by and large done a good job. Although he could have been a more revolutionary reformer, he has nonetheless steered the tiller with a commendable firmness. It is easier for backbenchers to speak and he does have a sincere desire to improve the public standing of Parliament. He has been unafraid to innovate and to speak his mind and it is no bad thing that Parliament now has a Speaker who is more willing to be the public face of the Commons."
At the conclusion of a book which is neither hagiography nor hatchet job, Bercow probably ought to be content with that judgment.