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Tuesday 14th August 2012 | 13:20
John Bercow said his desire to be Speaker was motivated only by a desire to reform Parliament, and not by his own ego.
“I never aspired to be Speaker simply so that I could say ‘I’m the Speaker of the House of Commons’ and tell my children that – and hopefully if, one day, I have grandchildren, be in a position to relay that nugget of information to my grandchildren.
“I didn’t just want the job. I wanted it because I felt that there was a task to be undertaken, and that is about strengthening backbench involvement and opportunity in Parliament, and helping Parliament get off its knees and recognise that it isn’t just there in any sense as a rubber stamping operation for the government of the day, and as necessary and appropriate to contradict and expose the government of the day.”
The Speaker argued he had made significant progress on his desired reforms, including speeding up question time, in addition to the reintroduction of Urgent Questions in Parliament.
“I said that I felt that progress at question time ought to be much quicker. I have speeded up progress at question time – we get through a lot more questions and answers than used to be the case.
“And I was particularly concerned that ministers should be accountable first and foremost to Parliament for policies, and if they didn’t volunteer to come to the House to announce new policy or to make statements I would reinvent – resuscitate, if you will – the device of the Urgent Question – capital U, capital Q – so that members who applied to the Speaker for permission to question a minister on an urgently arisen matter could do so.
“The only people it might perhaps irk are ministers who are inconvenienced thereby, and possibly their diary secretaries, with whom I confidently imagine I am a dartboard right across Whitehall. And I say it... in no aggressive or discourteous spirit, their upset, their irritation, their inconvenience, can be no concern of the Speaker.”
Mr Bercow also addressed the issue of why he divided opinion in Westminster so much, and suggested it boiled down to issues of personality.
“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. There will be people who say ‘well we like John, we think he’s hard working, we think he’s genuine, we think he’s down to earth.’
“And then there are people who say ‘Oh he’s so puffed up with his own importance’ and people who never wanted me to win in the first place, and in many cases strove very hard to stop me winning, have tended to feel a lingering sense of grievance.
“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.’
“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.”
Mr Bercow said he rarely encountered criticisms that he was biased, and argued his decision to call the Prime Minister to defend Jeremy Hunt was nothing more than his duty as Speaker.
“I don’t encounter that criticism with any great frequency, but there are people who were against me all along, and who in some cases have remained very vocal critics. What I was doing was making a judgement that the matter in question needed urgently to be aired in Parliament.
“One’s opponents can try as hard as they like, but they simply cannot demonstrate – because it isn’t true – that I’m on one side of that argument or another. All I am doing is saying ‘yes, this is urgent, it does warrant an exchange in Parliament.’
“Now it was said at the time that the Prime Minister disagreed and disapproved of the decision. I can say, in all fairness and courtesy, that the Prime Minister has never said so to me. I’m sure if he wanted to do so he could and would, but he hasn’t done so. But in any event, much as I have the highest respect for the Prime Minister – both as a man of great ability and for the office he holds – ...the team captain cannot also be the referee.
“The Prime Minister’s job is to captain his team, his party and his government. My job is to serve as Speaker of the House of Commons. And sometimes there can be a difference on procedural matters, and where it’s my responsibility to make a decision, make a decision I must. And if you ask me, have I occasionally been conscious that making a particular decision might cause a row? The answer is I might well have been conscious of that, but it hasn’t been uppermost in my mind.”
He argued the decision to allow Chris Bryant to call Jeremy Hunt a liar was completely justified, and that he had followed Parliamentary guidance on such matters.
“I had anticipated the scenario in advance, and I had taken the professional advice of the most senior official in the House, the Clerk of the House. Chris Bryant didn’t tell me in advance that he was proposing to intervene and to make that point.
“He absolutely didn’t, and he subsequently said to me that he felt he shouldn’t – and what’s more, I agree with him. It wasn’t for him to seek prior approval. But I had anticipated that in a debate on a motion about the conduct of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, such an observation, or something similar, might arise.
“And 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.”
The Speaker said the critical response he received was part and parcel of media activity surrounding him, and that he found it relatively easy to dismiss.
“I mean, there are people out there in the media who’ve been very hostile from day one, who in some cases almost make a living out of their professional hostility to me. That’s the sort of level at which they’re operating. And of course it gave them an opportunity to write another story, I suppose. But, as I say, it was the outpouring of the irreconcilables the bigger faction, and it was pretty downmarket stuff.
“When you say do I generally get angry with critics I think generally not. Have I occasionally lost my rag and got angry? Yes. Is it a mistake to do so? Certainly. Well, it almost certainly is, because I think that you should never lose self control. 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.
“But as to some of the really third tier scribblers, who are operating really not in the field of political analysis and commentary but at the light entertainment end of the journalistic spectrum, I’m sure that their opinions and burblings are of great interest to them and to a select gathering so unfortunate as to read them with any frequency.
“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."
He said his mother had once become upset at a story written about him, but the simplest solution was simply to ignore it.
“There was a time when a member of my family expressed some upset at reading a very hostile article about me in the Daily Mail, and I said ‘well there’s one very simple solution to this problem, and that is you should change your reading matter.’ It was my mother. But she thought it was nasty and unfair.
“This was years ago, I think it was before I became Speaker, if I remember rightly. She just thought that it was wrong, and unfair, and unwarranted. I’m close to my family. My father is not alive, but I’m on very good terms with my mother. I have a sister who I’m on good terms with, and obviously I’ve got my wife and children about me. So, you know, I’m sorry if this disappoints my critics who think that they’re going to derail and upset me, but I’m afraid that that’s quite beyond their capacity.”
Mr Bercow argued the majority of media criticism of his wife wouldn’t hold carry into a face-to-face discussion, and characterised it as cowardly.
“I do regard Sally as my asset. Above all she’s my wife whom I love, but it’s basically the bigger faction in the media from male-run newspapers of a particular hue who don’t like Sally, don’t like the fact that she’s politically left of centre, don’t like the fact that she’s independent of me, don’t like the fact that she doesn’t like them as newspapers.
“And I think that they think if they’re sufficiently abusive towards her 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.
“And the sort of people who are responsible for it – promoting it at the top of their papers – probably wouldn’t dare to debate the issue in any very public way. They certainly wouldn’t take me on. I’m not angry about it. I’m sometimes a bit, sort of, exasperated, but basically my feeling is one of disdain, really, and contempt.
“I mean I suppose what I’d say to these people, ‘engage with the issues.’ And I know what the answer would be: ‘Oh no, they’re not interested in that, it’s boring.’ And they don’t think their punters are interested in that. So what they’re doing is they’re trying to debase the currency of debate about Parliament and to make it a very, very trivial debate on personalities, characterised by abuse. So am I angry? Just sort of dismissive really. I just think it’s deeply low-grade.”
He said his political career had represented a gradual shift from the hard-right towards a more moderate stance.
“When I first started out in politics I was what you might describe as a hard-right Conservative. I espoused the principles very forcefully, and in particular I believed in a brand of conservatism that was deeply Thatcherite, and from time to time probably even to the right of Mrs Thatcher.
“Over the years I think I mellowed, well I know that I mellowed. There is no denying or hiding the fact that over the years I moved from well on the right of the Conservative party much, much more to its left and therefore to the centre of the political spectrum.
“I still believed, and believe, in free enterprise as a source of wealth creation, and as the economic system that’s most compatible with individual freedom, but I came strongly to believe over the years that the public services were a priority and should be treated as such, that the Conservative party needed to be a much more inclusive party, and to be much more sensitive on issues of race, and gender, and orientation, and disability, and needed to have a view about the gap between the haves and the have nots, and so on.
“So of course people who were of the hard right, and remain of the hard right, are in some cases critical of me, because they say ‘Ah, he used to be with us, and then he moved.’ And the essential charge is ‘well you changed’. Well I feel that it was the right thing to do, because I made the change over a period, not in one fell swoop or overnight. It was an honest change of heart.”
The Speaker concluded by saying his own opinions were immaterial in his role, but only because of his overriding duty of impartiality – not because he was ashamed of his views or actions.
“Now and again I might sit in the chair and think ‘oh, I’ve got an opinion about that’, but I would very quickly suppress any such thought, and I certainly wouldn’t allow it to influence, for example, who I called to speak... I don’t go around the streets of London or anywhere else boasting about it, but am I ashamed of it? No, because I don’t think that you should be ashamed of anything in politics that you do, or indeed in life, if it is done honestly and with integrity.”View all On Air Today