In Depth

John Bercow’s Unspeakable: five takeaways from ex-speaker’s autobiography

Controversial former Commons boss says David Cameron is ‘24-carat snob’ and claims Boris Johnson cheats at tennis

UK politicians are bracing for the publication of the no-holds-barred memoir of former House of Commons speaker John Bercow tomorrow. 

The former Tory MP for Buckingham is expected to be characteristically forthright in Unspeakable: The Autobiography, offering his views on topics including Brexit and accusations of anti-Semitism in the Tory party.

The Times describes the book as a “verbal machine-gunning of his former Conservative Party colleagues”, but Bercow insists otherwise. “It’s not score-settling, it’s putting my own thoughts on the record and giving an account of what I felt and experienced,” he told the newspaper.

Here are five key takeaways from the early excerpts.

Enduring anti-Semitic prejudice

Arguably the most shocking assertion in the book is levelled against the Conservative Party, which Bercow claims has a worse track record on anti-Semitism than any of the other mainstream parties, despite repeated allegations against Labour.

“In 22 years, I never experienced anti-Semitism from a member of the Labour Party,” writes Bercow, the son of a Jewish mini-cab driver. “But I did experience anti-semitism from members of the Conservative Party.”

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Bercow has recalled one Tory MP telling him: “If I had my way, Berkoff, people like you wouldn’t be allowed in this place.”

The former House speaker claims he responded, “sorry, when you say people like me, do you mean lower-class or Jewish?”, to which the MP replied, “both”.

Theresa May’s tears

Theresa May gained some sympathy when she broke down in tears after resigning as prime minister last year following a third failed attempt force her Brexit bill through Parliament - but not from Bercow.  

In an especially scathing passage in his memoir, he says that the former Tory leader “was tearful only when adversity affected her”.

“Finally, a PM who had become notorious for her absence of empathy and her robotic reiteration of vacuous mantras, suddenly displayed raw emotion about giving up the leadership of the country she loved,” he writes. “There were tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat. I could understand how upsetting it must have been for her but, candidly, I could not feel much sympathy.”

There had been “no such emotion over the victims of Grenfell Tower, those affected by the Windrush scandal or the daily misery endured by the homeless and those dependent on the food banks that have mushroomed alarmingly across the UK over the last decade”, he adds.

Other Conservative colleagues

Bercow is also less than complimentary about some of his other former colleagues in his new book.

He calls former PM David Cameron a “24-carat snob” and “petulant”, while Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove is labelled “oleaginous” and “propagandistic”. Former leader William Hague is dismissed simply as “a weirdo”.

But Bercow’s strongest criticism is reserved for Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom, who confronted the then speaker over allegations of bullying against him during her tenure as leader of the House. Hitting back in his memoir, Bercow calls Leadsom “nasty”, “bigoted” and “deluded”.

On staying quiet

“Governments want a passive speaker who will diplomatically stand aside and leave them to call the shots,” Bercow writes. “I never had the slightest interest in playing that role.”

Indeed, he attracted considerable criticism during his decade-long stint in the chair for his interference in the political process. But Bercow insists it was important to take a stand.

“Within the house administration, there were always people for whom the status quo was very comfortable and who resisted any change that would threaten that comfort and privilege,” he says. “My responsibility was not just to sit there, lazily administering the existing order. Rather it was to keep the best and, whether alone or with others, to improve the rest.”

Johnson’s tennis tactics

Perhaps the strangest accusation in the memoir concerns current Tory leader Johnson. Bercow says he “likes” the PM, who has “never been other than courteous” to him - but also accuses Johnson of cheating at tennis.

“He didn’t cheat by trying to fiddle the score, but he wasn’t using what I would call a legitimate ball,” Bercow says. “What he did was pick balls from where there was a lot of grass. They obviously hadn’t been used for years...”

Despite such alleged skullduggery, he reports defeating Johnson 6-0 6-0 6-0. It should be mentioned that Bercow is an avid tennis enthusiast who once considered becoming a professional and has even written a book on the history of the sport.


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