At the time when the ‘Pestminster’ madness engulfed the Commons last year, Speaker John Bercow sought to polish his reputation as an arch-moderniser by piously telling the House: ‘There must be zero tolerance of sexual harassment or bullying here at Westminster.’ Six months later, Bercow is accused of having bullied not one but two former private secretaries. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at his discomfort.
Earlier this year, unnamed sources claimed Bercow’s behaviour had been responsible for Kate Emms, his private secretary from 2010, lasting only a few months before being signed off due to post-traumatic stress disorder. One hopes Ms Emms is now well; however, it was right that a demanding job which reportedly paid her a £70,000 salary should not have been a stress-free sinecure. The latest accusation comes directly from her predecessor, Angus Sinclair, who in 2010 left with a publicly-funded settlement of £86,250 in return for what he insists was a non-disclosure agreement, but who now asserts: ‘It is in the public interest to know why I left.’
To be clear, none of what follows is an apologia for the combustible temper of John Bercow. Few who have observed the supercilious Speaker’s condescension and petulance in the Chamber will have difficulty believing that, behind the scenes, some underlings might find the diminutive Bercow to be an irascible runt – that’s with an ‘r’. The temptation, therefore, is simply to fetch the popcorn.
However, just as the definition of sexual harassment has been diluted by pathetic complaints such as Kate Maltby accusing Damian Green of a ‘fleeting hand against my knee’, so we should be concerned that bullying is a description now being stretched to breaking point. Instead of being sparingly applied to deliberate intimidation which is both targeted and systematic, capricious displays of uncontrolled anger are now routinely described as workplace bullying, thereby diminishing a term which ought to be reserved for a menace which, when it occurs, is actually much more serious and insidious.
In the case of John Bercow, Angus Sinclair told BBC’s Newsnight of the Speaker’s ‘over-the-top anger . . . the arms would wave around’; also, that he would ‘thump the table to say in front of others that someone had failed’. Testimony from a disgruntled former employee should of course be treated with some caution; however, even accepting his evidence at face value, what Sinclair describes falls some way short of a planned reign of terror. Also, it is difficult to comprehend that this complainant, who in his TV interview came across as surprisingly wet, had for most of his working life been a senior submariner; it seems curious that someone who reportedly spent 30 years in the rumbustious environment of the Royal Navy seemingly was unable to look Little John in the eye – which presumably would have required stooping – and repel him and his Napoleon complex.
In what presumably was the most egregious example he could cite, Sinclair described an instance in which a ‘furious’ Bercow had ‘asked for some information from another part of the House. It had been very slow coming and I’d prodded for an early resolution and he knew that but held me responsible’. Information ‘slow coming’ for which the Speaker’s private secretary had ‘prodded’ . . . hardly the portrait of a dynamic working environment. As a reaction to perceiving sloth and incompetence, ‘bad language’ and ‘mobile phone . . . flung on to the desk in front of me’ cannot be condoned; nevertheless, reflexive anger, however objectionable, does not itself constitute bullying.
(As a destroyer of mobiles, Bercow is a dilettante compared with the man in Number 10 when Little John became Speaker in 2009: Prime Minister Brown was reputed to hurl office equipment with the enthusiasm of a gridiron quarterback, his apogee reported to have been a week in which three phones were smashed against the wall. Newcomers to glowering Gordon’s sanctum were said to be warned of ‘flying Nokias’.)
Former Black Rod David Leakey – who did not report to Bercow – also chipped in with the claim: ‘There were lots of people who were, frankly, terrified of the Speaker.’ Yes, table-banging and ripe language might well be a pain in the posterior; but to be ‘terrified’ by the tantrums of a man-child – is Westminster staffed only by invertebrates? There are many reasons why Little John should be ousted, and his volcanic temper is high on the list, but let us not blithely categorise as workplace bullying all vigorous disagreements and tellings-off.
The fact is that Bercow remains in situ thanks largely to the patronage of Labour MPs: even David Leakey observes that the Speaker’s handling of the Commons grants the Labour opposition ‘a considerable political benefit’. As though trying to atone for his past on the Right, throughout his tenure as Speaker Little John has curried favour with the Left, to the extent that when in March 2018 Bercow was accused of the historical bullying of Kate Emms, even Jess Phillips, who normally itches to place men in the dock, reacted more in sorrow than anger: ‘These accusations do not tally at all with my experience of John’, whom she hailed as having been ‘very good for women’. And despite mounting evidence of Bercow’s sulphurous behaviour, Labour MPs Peter Hain and Barry Sheerman tweeted the following exculpatory responses:
Attack on @Mr_speaker_uk is nothing to do with ‘bullying’ instead motivated by those including Angus Sinclair resisting his essential parliamentary reforms
— Peter Hain (@PeterHain) May 2, 2018
I have known John Bercow since he came into Parliament he is not a bully but a small group of House officials hated his determination to shake up & modernise House of Commons! @BBCNews
— Barry Sheerman (@BarrySheerman) May 2, 2018
Even more nauseating than those testimonials was the pantomime played out in Parliament on May 2, when Tory stooge Julian Lewis – best man when Bercow wed the fragrant Sally – invited his old mucker to confirm in effect that the ‘great majority’ of staff think he is the bee’s knees; a charade followed by Labour’s Chris Leslie unctuously telling the Speaker that it would be ‘invidious for you to have to comment on allegations that are put in the press’.
And on the BBC’s Daily Politics, even the Commons Chaplain, Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, gave a sermon sympathising with the ‘very kind, caring and compassionate’ man who, by coincidence, had personally appointed her.
This is the band of merry men and women who, despite him now being a wanted man, have closed ranks to protect the contemptible Little John.