On Saturday evening, in one of the least surprising defections in Westminster history, John Bercow told The Observer that he had joined Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party.
Usually, when a political figure crosses the floor, the news not only dominates the headlines but causes great angst in their ex-party leader’s office.
This is not your typical defection, however. The ex-Speaker has been out of Parliament since December 2019 and has joined the likes of Nigel Farage on the video-sharing website Cameo in recent weeks. Seemingly desperate to stay in the limelight after stepping down, Bercow has already published his memoir, “Unspeakable”. As this indulgent exercise in both therapy and revenge begins to fizzle, Bercow identified a new opportunity to deliver a broadside to those who crossed him during his former career.
His defection was not, for example, akin to the bolt-from-the-blue switch to UKIP by Douglas Carswell in 2014. Nor to the more recent series of moves made by the Nandos-loving MPs who formed and joined Change UK.
Instead, the disgruntled former Speaker of the House of Commons has an axe to grind. Few will believe his claims at having gradually realised his “left of centre” values were out of step with the so-called “reactionary, populist, nationalistic and sometimes even xenophobic” politics of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. For one thing, as the Tories attempt to hold onto Red Wall voters we’re seeing government adopt the increasingly dirigiste approach that Bercow appears to support.
If we look past the fact that Bercow himself started his political journey as a member of the far-right Monday Club, Bercow’s defection is little more than the “Pope is Catholic” revelation. Throughout his 22-year long stint as the Member of Parliament for Buckingham, Bercow has created chaos for the Conservative Party.
Even when David Cameron, a man often described as a ‘One Nation’ and socially liberal Conservative, was Leader of the Opposition, Bercow was rumoured to be contemplating joining the Tory MP Quentin Davies in jumping ship to Gordon Brown’s backbenches. It is therefore unsurprising that Bercow, elected with the support of Labour MPs to succeed Michael Martin as the Commons’ Speaker, was a perennial thorn in the side of all Tory governments.
But it was the 2016 referendum, the anniversary of which we mark today, that really placed Bercow at odds with his former 1922 Committee allies. As Speaker, he broke convention after convention in a bid to thwart Brexit and insulted several government frontbenchers, including the former Environment Secretary and Vote Leave campaigner Andrea Leadsom. It was comical for Bercow to decry the Prime Minister’s prorogation of Parliament when he went above and beyond political precedent to further his own political convictions.
During his controversial final days in the Speaker’s chair, Bercow was embroiled in a storm of bullying allegations, which are still under investigation. These have been cited as some of the main reasons that the ex-Speaker was not nominated by Johnson for a peerage, an honour usually accorded to his predecessors.
It has now been widely reported that Bercow was so desperate to be elevated to the House of Lords that he “begged” ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to nominate him after the 2019 general election.
Now, by doing Starmer a favour and making the news cycle turn slightly in his favour, the former Speaker will hope he will be able to join the opposition benches in the Upper House. This, however, has since been ruled out by Southside.
For the Conservatives, Bercow’s defection is almost a non-story. The government should ignore his broadside instead concentrate their efforts on responding to the Delta variant of the coronavirus and preparing for how to “build back better” in the future. Even politically, the fall-out of Bercow’s defection necessitates nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders. Thinking about how Johnson can recover votes in Chesham & Amersham while making more inroads into seats like Hartlepool should be the priority for CCHQ, not why a disgruntled former member is trying to stay relevant.
As for Labour, it’s hard to see this defection boosting support in upcoming electoral contests. Bercow is a divisive figure, one who allowed ego to intrude upon his role as speaker. If anything, his association with Labour could put voters off.
When residents in the leave-voting Yorkshire constituency of Batley & Spen flock to the polling stations, to see whether the Party’s association with the sanctimonious ardent-Remainer is anything more than an act of meaningless narcissism.