By Matthew Barrett
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Firstly, out of the two final candidates in the Speakership election during the last election, Bercow is the man with the more stern manner when dealing with Parliamentarians misbehaving. Sir George Young, a good man, and an effective Leader of the House, only conjures a hint of temper loss when made to sit through weeks of provocation from his Labour opposite number. I don't think Sir George would have been able to produce the near-anger Speakers occasionally have to. Admittedly, Speaker Bercow has reduced the impact of the Speaker intervening in debates by intervening too often, and sometimes with trivial complaints – but he nevertheless has the ability to silence the House when necessary.
Secondly, Bercow holds Ministers to account. He has made them answer far more urgent questions, and made them explain their actions far more fully than I remember under Michael Martin and Labour. That's the Speaker's job, and we should welcome it regardless of the party of government.
However, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms to make of Speaker Bercow – for example, his aforementioned cheapening of interventions, and his frequent assertions that "the public doesn't like" MPs to have robust debates in the Commons. There is also Rob Wilson MP's research published earlier this year, which showed that 62% of the Speaker's interruptions are against Conservative MPs, despite only 47% of MPs being Tory. It's not wise, therefore, for the Speaker to use drastic and unkind adjectives to describe those who do not like him. Appearing on the radio this afternoon, Bercow said:
"I pride myself on being courteous to people, and trying to fashion good relations. Why do some like me and others not? To be frank there are issues of personality. … [but] Sometimes people who perhaps haven’t achieved what they want to achieve in their political career can display some sign of resentment – not necessarily because they themselves wanted to be Speaker, because they feel ‘well, my talents haven’t been recognised. That fellow was a rather free-wheeling, independent minded’ – perhaps even, in their minds, disloyal – ‘backbench member, and suddenly he pops up as speaker. And we don’t like it.’"
His tone on the radio went from being amiable and straightforward when he set out his thoughts in the paragraph above, to becoming rather darker and more intense during the paragraph below:
“And just as I don’t bear a grudge against anybody who didn’t vote for me, I would argue that if people are fair minded they shouldn’t, three years on, be sulking about who won. They’ve either vocalised their criticism in public, or they’ve constantly briefed against me behind the scenes. And of course I have an idea of who some of those people are, and I think it’s a sadness – a sadness for them that they’re so embittered, that they’re so resentful, that they’re constantly seeking to undermine and to brief against me and so on.”
That will annoy many critics of Mr Speaker, many of whom would not recognise the charge of harbouring failed career ambitions, or holding unreasonable grudges. He will not have improved his reputation in the eyes of those constructive critics who have genuine grievances.
Elsewhere in the interview, Bercow justified the Parliamentary session in which he allowed Labour MP Chris Bryant to call Jeremy Hunt a "liar" – an event which provoked anger from the Tory benches:
"I had consulted the Clerk of the House and he had said to me because we are, as a House, debating a substantive motion on the conduct of a minister, the normal rules about parliamentary language frankly don’t apply. And although ordinarily you would say that any member accusing another of dishonesty must withdraw such an allegation, you wouldn’t be justified in doing so in this case. But do I regret ruling as I did? No I don’t regret ruling as I did, because it was uncomfortable and unpopular, but correct."
Finally, Bercow continued his quest not to get his media critics onside any time soon. He said:
"But to come back to this point about critics and how you deal with them, I’m, to be honest, supremely uninterested in what is written in many of the newspapers. … Do I have any interest in what they have to say? Their utterances are absolutely of no interest to me whatsoever. I’m sorry to disappoint them, but they’re not just important. … And I think that they think if they’re sufficiently abusive towards [his wife Sally] either she’ll disappear or it’ll upset me, or it’ll provoke some sort of crisis in our household and so on. But I mean, these people are no-hopers. it’s totally low-grade, sub-standard, downmarket, low music hall drivel."