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Order, disorder: Britain’s bullying speaker

Sebastian Whale wrote Call to Order, a biography of former U.K. Speaker John Bercow. He is also a trade reporter for POLITICO.

LONDON — For many around the world, John Bercow will be remembered for his eviscerating of the British government as House of Commons speaker during seemingly endless Brexit debates. For some closer to home, he was a “serial bully,” volatile and prone to tantrums.

He’s a man who elicits polarizing views — including among those who worked with him.

“He is a practiced shit,” a former colleague said, asking to remain anonymous. “He is really, really good at being unpleasant. It is quite an odd skill to have in life, and Bercow has it in abundance.”

A former member of Bercow’s constituency office had a markedly different experience. “He was a good boss; he was a kind man,” they said. Describing Bercow as very sensitive and “hugely” empathetic, they could not reconcile allegations of bullying with the person they knew. While conceding he has a temper — something Bercow himself attests to — they never encountered anything they would describe as inappropriate. 

Just over two years since he stood down after 10 years overseeing debates in the House of Commons, an independent report has concluded Bercow engaged in “serious and sustained bullying” of three House of Commons officials.

The conclusions are damning, not just for Bercow, but for British politics. Bercow was at the center of proceedings when allegations of bullying and harassment at Westminster were first revealed by the BBC in 2018. Despite facing accusations himself, he remained in post until a date largely of his own choosing, propped up by MPs who put their political agenda first.

His controversial role overseeing the Commons as the U.K. left the European Union, and his apparent willingness to use his position to try and change the course of Brexit catapulted him to the heart of the biggest political upheaval Britain has faced since World War II. Some even suggest successive Conservative governments bullied Bercow. So divided was the politics surrounding the U.K.’s exit from the bloc, it is difficult to find anyone in Westminster with a neutral view, a political landscape that has made unpicking accusations of wrongdoing all the harder — an extreme example of why allegations of bullying within politics prove so difficult to handle.

Bercow condemned the findings as a “travesty of justice,” claiming that Parliamentary Commissioner Kathryn Stone had presided over an “amateurish” investigation.

Stamping and screaming

There is not much fence-sitting when it comes to Bercow. To some, he was the last bastion against Brexit, a pioneering chair who held an unruly executive to account with procedural creativity, bravery and a savvy interpretation of parliamentary rules. To others, he was a bully, even a tyrant, who brought the impartial position of speaker — and Britain’s political system — into disrepute.

Where you fall in this dividing line could depend on your political disposition or, more crucially in the case of staff, on the type of relationship you had with Bercow.

Bercow has always strenuously denied all the accusations against him.

Two of his accusers — Angus Sinclair and Kate Emms — worked successively as Bercow’s private secretaries. The third, Robert Lisvane, was the Clerk of the Commons, the most senior member of the House of Commons service. 

Others who decided not to lodge a formal complaint had similar experiences with the former speaker. “You shouldn’t have to go to work feeling like you’re about to enter a warzone,” said one person who worked with Bercow, speaking in 2020 on the condition of anonymity. 

They described a man who could be “vicious” in his language and tone, prone to “throwing paddys” which could include stamping, slamming doors and screaming. They also recalled staff having to reassemble Bercow’s phone after he had thrown it in anger. There were triggers to watch out for, especially if Arsenal Football Club or Roger Federer — two of his great sporting loves — had suffered defeat. “That is not normal,” they said.

Often the person felt targeted simply for giving Bercow news that he didn’t want to hear.

Another person unassociated with accusations against Bercow told me they had experienced several encounters with the former speaker characterized as “rages, tantrums and bullying-type episodes.” 

Responding to these accusations, Bercow said Tuesday: “I totally reject these wild claims. There is no substance whatsoever to any of them. It is a matter of fact that I had a superb team in Speaker’s House for a decade and enjoyed excellent relations with them.”

There are plenty more anecdotes from people who had run-ins with Bercow during his 22-year parliamentary career.

Former staff members say Bercow was unafraid of people seeing his behavior, leaving behind a trail of witnesses. On one occasion, Bercow told Lisvane to “fuck off” when he interrupted a meeting, according to a former official in the room. Bercow denied this. 

A friend of Bercow said his critics “haven’t seen the John that I know.” Others to have engaged with the former speaker, including many MPs, mention his kindness and generosity, which instilled a sense of loyalty illustrated during Bercow’s most testing moments in the Commons.

Even his accusers note that Bercow can be charming and personable, though that dual personality only left them more on edge, unsure what to expect. 

Mandate to modernize

Bercow was elected Speaker in June 2009 on a platform of reform. From introducing onsite daycare to emboldening backbenchers, he sought to modernize and update the House of Commons in the wake of the expenses scandal.

To Bercow, certain House of Commons staff presented obstacles to his plans.

Addressing his accusers in a public appearance, Bercow said: “One characteristic that so far several of the detractors have in common … is that they are institutionalized. They are change-resistant, and they are people who are very long accustomed not just to having their say but to having their way.”

Bercow believed his mandate superseded all — the ends totemic and the means necessary — imbuing an enduring blind spot to his behavior. “In the end, somebody has to prevail, and I think that the speaker … is entitled to proceed as he set out to do,” Bercow said at another public appearance.

The differing accounts of the various people who have worked with Bercow demonstrate a clear pattern. “There was potentially a difference between how he may have treated constituency staff, who are literally just there to support him,” said the former constituency staff member quoted at the start of the article. “Whereas I suspect when he came in, he may not have 100 percent felt that all of the speaker’s office was pulling wholeheartedly in the right direction.”

Those who submitted bullying complaints to the inquiry had roles that would see them run up against Bercow. Clerks offer procedural advice, which Bercow was infamously unafraid of contesting. Private secretaries keep on top of the speaker’s agenda, preparing the papers and briefs while also acting as an interlocutor with MPs. Any deviations to plans or unwelcome messages were not well received.

Politicians on the receiving end of Bercow’s wrath in the chamber, meanwhile, often did so for showing dissent or perceived disrespect of the chair. 

Bercow’s disdain for being thwarted (as he saw it) has its roots in his early life. Bullied at school while his parents separated at home, Bercow’s past is as complex as his present: a journey that took him from the anti-immigration right to the liberal left. He felt he had to fight for things in his political career that otherwise came more easily to those from a more privileged background. 

Such a drive can be a blessing in politics: achieving reform after all is no easy feat. Determination is a prerequisite — but treating colleagues poorly is not.

The issue with reaching a satisfactory verdict on Bercow is that his legacy is another touchstone in the ideological battle taking place in British politics. His staunch loyalists — many of whom were galvanized by his actions over Brexit — will continue to defend him despite the inquiry’s findings. His detractors often used the accusations against Bercow to pursue their own vendettas, and have gone on to exhibit double standards when it comes to other allegations of bullying.

Amid all the noise and political grandstanding, Commons staff say they were left badly treated and unsupported while others put their own agendas first.

One member of Commons staff said: “The humiliation suffered by staff at his hands was well known in Westminster. Many MPs from all parties turned a blind eye in private to further their own ends, while shedding crocodile tears about the victims of bullying and harassment in public.”

Some opinions may not change despite today’s news, given the intransigence that surrounds Bercow. Indeed, the former speaker pre-empted the inquiry’s findings to declare it a “kangaroo court.”

While there is little sign of meaningful change arising from this case, the people for whom this has been a long and damaging ordeal finally have some closure.

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