The Brexit debates turned politics into worldwide box office, and the star of the show very quickly became the Speaker, John Bercow.
He began his political career as a mouthy Thatcherite, then moved leftwards owing, it was said, to a lady (soon to become his wife) of more left-leaning views. One Tory colleague observed: “The trouble with John is, he’s just discovered sex.”
I was fortunate enough to have met Bercow when he was a backbencher; then again after he was elected Speaker. This was still before his worldwide acclaim. The cause of our meetings was an anomaly in the Road Traffic Act. A young woman had been tragically killed but the perpetrator could not be held to account. As part of the strategy in fighting her cause, through her grieving parents, I approached the man I had been led to believe was the family’s MP: John Bercow. So the parents, their solicitor and I arranged to meet Bercow at Portcullis House. He was punctual: short, dapper, impeccably suited, and utterly charming. But it turned out he was the wrong man.
A phone call out of the blue
Because of recent boundary changes, the family were no longer in his constituency. Protocol is that MPs should only act on behalf of their own constituents, so Bercow couldn’t help. He had realised the error when checking his programme for the day, and we were already on our way to Westminster.
So he explained the position, but bought us tea and asked about the daughter’s tragedy anyway, offering such solicitous advice as he could.
Over some weeks we made a plan. It was agreed with the true MP, Andrea Leadsom, that she would present a private member’s bill to the Commons to address the anomaly. During the time all this took, Bercow had risen from Tory backbencher to Speaker. Eventually the day came for Leadsom to present the bill. I was on the train to Westminster when my phone rang.
Beer, claret and the buttocks of a chorus girl
PG Wodehouse described a character whose voice was like “beer trickling out of a jug”, but the voice on the other end was more like the delicate decanting of a left bank claret. It was calling on behalf of the Speaker, who wondered whether our programme would allow time to take tea with him in his chambers. It seems Bercow had been running through the Commons business of the day when he noticed the bill, and then remembered the family’s name. He realised this was an important occasion for them, and thought he might be able to add a little more grandeur to the event.
So we assembled in the lobby. We were met by a figure insinuating his way through the crush who, from the cut of his Savile Row suit, could only be the voice. He made deferential movements with his hands, like what Laurence Durrell described as ”running his hands listlessly over the buttocks of a chorus girl”, and we discerned we should follow him.
Taking the place of the American president
We walked through corridors lined with shelves on which were piled rolls of parchment, the stuff of British history. And there was Bercow, as sleek as before and twice as charming. We entered, all wood panelling, ornate ceilings and Pugin wallpaper.
Common people were marching about on the road outside, but at a satisfying distance and cut off by what looked like a moat. (For reference, the Speaker’s House is on the corner of the Palace of Westminster as you approach from Westminster Bridge, a little below road level.)
People don’t just drop in on the Speaker. An invitation to take tea is a rare occasion. In fact, as he invited the mother to sit on the sofa, he remarked: “The last person to sit there was actually the president of the United States.”
“Hats off, strangers!”
The voice returned bearing a tray. We talked about the bill and its proceedings. Eventually the voice reminded the Speaker that he was due in the Commons in 15 minutes. Bercow excused himself, but told us that we would be found a place where we could admire the Speaker’s procession – which begins every day’s business – before being escorted to the gallery.
The procession is popular with tourists. It swept towards us, the sergeant-at-arms bellowing “Speaker” and carrying the mace, followed by Bercow, now berobed. Behind him came the voice, now transformed by tights and a sword into the train-bearer.
As it reached us it paused, the Speaker turned and bowed in our direction, and then set off to the central lobby and the new booming demand of “Hats off, strangers!”
Bereaved mother becomes queen for a day
Bercow had told us he would take the chair himself, a break with procedure that meant tying up his whole afternoon. The bill itself is another story, but the parents went home happy. Bercow is in some quarters considered vain and pompous, and he enjoys appearing charming. Worse criticisms could be levelled at MPs. If his practised charm means treating a bereaved mother like a queen for a day and showing the nation’s government acknowledging her loss, we are no worse off for that.