Like him or not, John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, certainly has a sense of humour.
I interviewed him informally at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, shortly before he called to order a packed marquee of students and parents. They immediately fell silent.
As guest speaker, on speech day, Bercow spoke eloquently and without notes and presented school prizes. A few days later, I saw him again, this time on BBC News, looking composed as he authoritatively called to order Parliament for its first re-opening since the General Election.
He is the first Jewish MP to hold the role of Speaker.
Is he proud of his Jewish heritage?
“Yes,” he said. “My father was Jewish and I went to Finchley Reform Synagogue and had a barmitzvah, although I am secular. My mother is not Jewish, but she converted.” He says he believed himself to be fairly average at school.
“I have never regarded myself as exceptionally able. I was very ordinary at school, but worked hard,” he said. “My parents taught me the importance of courage and perseverance.”
He then apologises for having a bad cold and not being at his best. I commiserate that is hardly surprising considering the difficult week he’s had with his re-election as Speaker and marital problems chronicled in the press. His face lights up rather charmingly when I mention he looks better in person than in photographs, which usually fail to capture his attractive vitality.
Bercow is an interesting character and his political career is fascinating [he started out on the far-right in the Monday Club and is now soft left]. I ask him to explain his parliamentary role and whether he considers himself safely elected.
With a wry smile, he replies: “The Speaker operates under considerable constraint – so it is difficult for him to make a comment.
“He does not become a eunuch, but has to demonstrate celibacy. I derive some succour from the knowledge that MPs today are more interested in the views of their constituents than they were in 1714, when Anthony Henley was an MP.
“In that year, he received a letter from constituents asking him to vote against the Excise Bill. He wrote back stating: ‘I am surprised at your insolence in troubling me about the Excise. You and I know that I bought this constituency and have now found another’. Only tell this anecdote when you know that you will not be seeking re-election soon!”
The headmaster congratulated Bercow on his increased majority and on being a good constituency MP. Bercow told his audience emphatically: “You have a mission and you commit to it and don’t walk away when the going gets tough. I believe that a wholly disproportionate weight is attached to raw talent, rather than hard work and readiness to come back from adversity and imminent defeat. Having to cope with a difficult situation is character forming and you acquire the necessary resources to fight back.”
These are qualities that have enabled Jewish people to survive. Bercow looked delighted by the loud applause he received from the crowd. Later, over lunch, he tells me, somewhat wistfully: “My wife tells me off for speaking too long.”
Does he feel Prime Minister’s Question Time is useful?
“It is an important institution and is what most people see and hear of Parliament. It has always been noisy and passionate, as politicians have always had differences,” he acknowledged. “There is a spat going on between the Scottish Nationalist Party and Her Majesty’s Opposition about where to sit in the House. Why should this matter? This needs to be resolved.”
Bercow is unarguably a survivor. At the end of the last Parliament he survived an attempt by erstwhile fellow Tory MPs to change the rules to make it easier to unseat him. He had made enemies by insisting on the rights of backbench MPs and had also angered ministers through his drive to modernise the Commons.
Did the General Election results come as a surprise?
“The British opinion polling industry has a lot to answer for. All the consensus was that there would be a hung parliament, yet there was a small overall majority. Was there a late surge, or a shift of opinion in the last few days, or was the consensus wrong? I hope my colleagues in the House will look out to the electorate and build up public trust. I am aware of the opprobrium my profession is held but must be grateful for small mercies.”
A spectacular fly-over by Russian 1950s Cold War planes follows, drowning out conversation. I walk Bercow to his car at the end of the day and was a little annoyed when women began hovering, although he gave them no encouragement.
Despite having only one Jewish-born parent, Bercow identifies strongly with his Jewish side. A little-remembered fact is that Buckingham had another high profile Jewish MP, in the 1970s – Robert Maxwell. He would have been delighted by the Soviet flyover!