John Bercow rarely visited the student union bar at the University of Essex. When he did, other students would boo and hiss at him. One time, someone even poured a pint of beer over his head. On the even rarer occasions that he and other Tory activists made it to the student union disco, the DJ would play ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ by Heaven 17.
Bercow, whose political heroes included Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, was among the most unpopular members of the predominantly left-wing student body. One former contemporary says Bercow was “pretty much universally despised” for his unapologetic promotion of Conservatism and vehement opposition to left-wing politics. Despite this, Bercow flourished at Essex, receiving a first-class honours degree in Government and crucial experience in taking on his opponents.
Abrasive and precociously talented, the young Bercow had some choice views. After leaving school, a difficult period where he was bullied and unpopular, he joined the right-wing Monday Club, serving as secretary of its Immigration and Repatriation Committee. Bercow, a former leader of the controversial Federation of Conservative Students, would serve as a councillor in Lambeth, notorious for its opposition to Thatcher’s government under ‘Red Ted’ Knight and later, Linda Bellos, mainly so he could take on its left-wing councillors.
Elected Conservative MP for Buckingham in 1997, Bercow was once referred to in the media as a ‘semi-automatic rightwinger’. A decade later, under-promoted and disillusioned with the direction of his party, senior Labour figures approached him about defecting. Fourteen years after Ed Miliband tried and failed to get him on board, Bercow has finally joined the Labour party.
This journey from a confessed ‘rabid’ Tory to Labour supporter is arguably the most notable in recent British political history. Many have argued that his wife Sally, whom he met at a Conservative event in Nottingham in 1989, is largely responsible for moulding Bercow’s new political outlook. He strongly denies such claims, arguing they are sexist. (For what it’s worth, I believe one can overstate Sally’s role — Bercow knows his own mind — but I’m not entirely convinced that the suggestion of being influenced by a spouse is necessarily sexist. Surely, in small ways and large, everyone is to a degree.)
Bercow’s decision to join the Labour party is the logical conclusion of his remarkable transformation from eurosceptic, anti-immigration, Thatcher-loving Tory to the Remain-voting, left-leaning, Bernie Sanders-supporting liberal currently touring the TV studios.
The legitimacy of the journey has always been a subject of debate. Bercow’s critics point out that he was a Thatcherite when Margaret Thatcher was in power, a moderate centrist during the Blair years, and a reborn Europhile when much of the establishment favoured Remain. “I’m not sure he believes in anything other than his own ego,” an ex-associate argued.
In fairness, Bercow has propagated progressive values on immigration and social issues such as gay rights for almost two decades. And in truth, Bercow had long left the Conservatives before relinquishing his membership when elected Speaker in June 2009.
Bercow insists his decision to join Labour “isn’t about revenge” for Boris Johnson declining to grant him a peerage. “That is not what motivates me,” he told The Observer. Given his critique of Matt Hancock (to paraphrase, nowhere near as good as he thinks he is) and Boris Johnson (“[He] only has a nodding acquaintance with the truth in a leap year”), you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
An inability to restrain himself has always been a major flaw in Bercow’s character. His decision to reveal how he voted at the EU referendum left him open to the charge of bias, sullying some of his good work in enabling MPs to have a say during the Brexit process. Unilaterally ruling that Donald Trump shouldn’t address Westminster Hall showed a disregard for his peers and a propensity for the limelight (putting to one side the decision itself). In addition, his aggressive behaviour in the Speaker’s chair, and more notably, behind the scenes, led to multiple accusations of bullying. A defter, more considerate approach would have served him and those around him far greater.
Either way, it’s unlikely to be the last we hear from Bercow. And, given where he started and where he’s ended up, who can say that he’s reached the end of his quite astounding political journey?
Amid the flux, one thing has remained constant with Bercow: his love for a political fight. All the backlash to his recent news among the usual quarters would only serve to spur him on.
As a fellow Essex graduate told me: “The more pints he had poured over his head, the more he would have felt he was prosecuting the good cause.”