John Bercow and Deborah Frances-White
Artillery Row

Outside his bailiwick

John Bercow’s podcast is me me me, with a side order of sycophancy

John Bercow’s Absolute Power (Podcast)


John Bercow has spent the time since he left the Speaker’s chair joining the Labour Party (officially) and making money by selling clips of himself online saying “Ordeeeer!” or anything else you want him to in the ham Pride and Prejudice-style he affected in the Commons. So it’s a welcome return to dignity for the former Speaker of the House of Commons to start his own podcast where the guest every week is himself. (Granted, he says “Ordeeeer!” within the first few minutes, but at least we’re not paying.) His interlocutor, Deborah Frances-White, describes herself as a well-known feminist but knows as much about politics as I know about her. (Inspired by her approach to the podcast, I will be commenting on her without even googling who she is.) She only knows that Bercow hates Donald Trump and has an anti-Brexit sticker on his car — sorry, wife’s car — and those two facts alone means it’s a thumbs up from the creator of The Guilty Feminist podcast. (OK, OK, I might have googled her once.)

The shambolic, failed ousting seemed to go some way to explaining why Bercow hated the Tory government

Given that introduction, it might seem strange for me to give Absolute Power 5 stars.  But the podcast is not aimed at normal people interested in politics, or even the weird FBPE accounts that still inexplicably exist on Twitter and see Bercow as a hero. There’s nothing much here for either group. But when you realise who the real target audience is, the 5 star rating suddenly makes sense. The tedious insights from the Speaker, like the fact that he sometimes had coffee with other MPs — “tell us another one, John!”,  the sycophantic questions from Frances-White: “It’s fair to say you’re the most famous Speaker, isn’t it?”,  and the format — an interview with Bercow alone every episode — is absolutely perfect listening for the demographic they were aiming at: very short white men who used to be the Speaker of the House of Commons. It may not be to my taste, but what a brilliant audio treat Bercow has in store for himself every week. One very happy listener indeed.

In fairness to the host, she did ask him about some interesting things, such as the 2015 abortive coup when the Tories tried to get rid of him on the last day of a parliamentary session. I remember watching the showdown on TV from a pub outside Parliament. It was a spectacular bit of theatre. William Hague had forced a vote on changing the rules to elect the Speaker by secret ballot and Bercow fought back tears from the chair as he narrowly won the division. Labour MPs clapped and Hague looked dejected in a corner like he wanted the Green benches to swallow him up. Once a Conservative himself but moving ever leftwards, the shambolic, failed ousting seemed to go some way to explaining why Bercow hated the Tory government so much. The coup attempt was the Bay of Pigs to Bercow’s Castro.

But without being pressed for a bit of self-reflection on why his former party disliked him so much, (he was elected with the help of Labour votes) he suggested — Alan Partridge-like — that after all was said and done, he had the last laugh: “I felt not so much embarrassed by William, I felt embarrassed for him… It was frankly a pitiful way for him to conclude his parliamentary career.” and he took pride telling us that he stopped sending the former Richmond MP Christmas cards but was so above the fray that he didn’t know or care whether Hague still sent him one. If I can be so bold as to contradict the great man, I think he does remember.

Even Labour MPs acknowledged that the role of Speaker was now that of an “activist”

We also learn that Bercow has no hang-ups whatsoever about being short: “It’s quite wrong when some of these more downmarket low-musical fifth-rate scribblers in the tabloids say ‘oh Bercow is the shortest man to ever be speaker’.” He tells listeners that Sir John Bussy, Speaker from 1393-1398, Sir John Wenlock, Speaker from 1455-1456 and Sir Thomas Tresham, the Speaker in 1459 were all shorter. But before you note them down ready to reel off for your virtual Christmas quiz, Bercow has a hilarious punchline: “Although I do have to admit that this was true only after all three of them had been beheaded”.  So the downmarket low-musical fifth-rate scribblers in the tabloids were right then? Thanks John. We’re learning a lot here, but not much about history.

“Is the chair comfy?”, asks Dan Ford from Twitter.

Frances-White had picked the best questions from social media.

“Very. It’s hard to get up. I once sat there for 14 hours and I was dubbed golden bladder”.

Any interviewer worth their salt would have turned a story so dull it wasn’t worth tweeting into a question about the elephant in the room: the “megalomania” charge Bercow was accused of by the press and MPs. “The Chair must have been really comfy John because you didn’t just sit there for 14 hours, did you? You sat there for ten years.” Bercow had promised to step down after nine, but by that point Brexit hadn’t quite finished and since he had turned the once-neutral chair into a partisan combatant in the Brexit process, he couldn’t quite stop.

The constitutional vandalism he wrought almost derailed the Brexit process and, combined with Theresa May’s approach, did more to tarnish the image of politics in recent years than the 2009 expenses scandal. It had such an effect that in campaign literature sent to MPs to vote on the next Speaker, one Labour candidate listed their priorities with the acknowledgement that the role of Speaker was now that of an “activist”.

Sadly Frances-White didn’t ask that. Nor did the guilty feminist mention the bullying allegations, always denied by Bercow, which went hand-in-hand with the Napoleon-complex many believed he had. An independent report by Dame Laura Cox said there was a tradition of “deference and silence” that “actively sought to cover up abusive conduct” and failed to give no protection to House of Commons staff reporting sexual harassment or bullying. Although she was not responding to individual complaints relating to Bercow, she suggested the leadership of the House was to blame for the toxic culture.

Deborah Frances-White is not Jeremy Paxman and the point of a podcast is not to eviscerate him. But what is the point? In an early exchange Bercow said expressing a view on Trump’s visit to Parliament fell within his “bailiwick”. She finds this word intoxicatingly eccentric and said it sounded “Hogwarts”. But if she’d focussed more on what was and wasn’t in the former Speaker’s bailiwick rather than trying to get the word trending on Twitter, it might have been a more interesting exchange. As it was, I can’t imagine the podcast would appeal to anyone.

Except, of course, to Mr. Bercow. I promise you he’ll love it.

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