John Simon Bercow (born 19 January 1963) is a British politician who has been the Speaker of the House of Commons since June 2009. Prior to his election to Speaker, he was a member of the Conservative Party. A former “hardline” right-winger who moderated his views after becoming an MP and at one time was rumoured to be likely to defect to the Labour Party, Bercow’s election to the Speaker’s Chair depended heavily on the backing of other parties, and was deeply unpopular with many of his former colleagues.
He served as a councillor from 1986 to 1990 and unsuccessfully contested parliamentary seats in the 1987 and 1992 general elections. In the 1997 general election, Bercow was elected the MP for Buckingham and promoted to the shadow cabinet in 2001. He held posts in the shadow cabinets of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. In November 2002, he resigned from the shadow cabinet over disputes concerning the Adoption and Children Act but returned under Howard in 2003. In September 2004, Bercow was sacked after disagreements with Howard.
Following the resignation of Speaker Michael Martin, Bercow announced his intention to stand for the Speakership election on 22 June 2009 and was successful. He remained Speaker and was re-elected in his constituency at the general election on 7 May 2015. He was re-elected as Speaker, unopposed, when the House sat at the start of the new parliament on 18 May 2015.
In 2014 Bercow was appointed Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire
Speaker of the House of Commons
Bercow had long campaigned quietly to become Speaker and was touted as a successor to Michael Martin. On 20 May 2009, he officially announced his intention to stand in the Speakership election, which had been triggered by Martin’s resignation, and launched his manifesto for the job. In reference to his decision to run, Bercow said: “I wanted it because I felt that there was a task to be undertaken and that’s about strengthening backbench involvement and opportunity in parliament, and helping parliament get off its knees and recognise that it isn’t just there as a rubber-stamping operation for the government of the day, and as necessary and appropriate to contradict and expose the government of the day.”
In the first round of the election on 22 June, Bercow received 179 votes – more than any other candidate, but short of the majority required for victory. In the third and final round of voting later that day, he defeated Sir George Young by 322 votes to 271,and was approved by the Queen at 10pm that night as the 157th Speaker. In accordance with convention, he rescinded his Conservative party membership.
Bercow’s election as Speaker was controversial because he is believed to have had the support of very few MPs from his own party. Fellow Conservative MPs generally viewed Bercow with distrust because of his changing political views (having moved over the years from being very right-wing to become more socially liberal, leading to clashes with past party leaders), his acceptance of an advisory role from the Labour government (a party he had often been rumoured to be on the verge of joining), his general lack of good relations with fellow MPs from his own party, and his vigorous campaigning for the Speaker’s job. It has been speculated that he received the votes of as few as three of his fellow Conservative MPs. However, he received the votes of a large number of Labour MPs, many of whom were angered at the way they perceived Michael Martin to have been hounded out of the job and wanted his replacement to be someone who was not a favourite of the Conservative Party.
Bercow is the first Speaker who is Jewish, the first Speaker to have been elected by an exhaustive ballot, and the first Speaker not to wear traditional court robes while presiding over the House of Commons.However, in accordance with tradition, Bercow does now display his coat of arms at Speaker’s House.
To mark the centenary of the Parliament Act 1911, Bercow commissioned a series of lectures about the main political figures of the century. The Speaker’s Lectures continued in 2012 and 2013 with different topics.
According to some MPs, Conservatives believe that Bercow has behaved in a biased manner as Speaker.
On 26 March 2015, the House of Commons defeated a government motion (introduced by former Conservative party leader and then leader of the House of Commons William Hague) to require there to be a secret ballot vote on whether Bercow remain speaker after the 2015 general election. A number of MPs described it as an underhand plot to oust Bercow, largely based on the timing of the motion just before the dissolution of Parliament, when some Labour MPs expected to oppose it had already returned to their constituencies.In the event, Bercow was re-elected unopposed as Speaker following the general election.
Speaker’s residence controversy
Within weeks of taking office as Speaker, Bercow ordered a redecoration and refurbishment of the Speaker’s grace and favour apartment in the Palace of Westminster, buying a large television and a DVD player; the work cost £20,659 and was paid for by parliament. It followed previous extensive work on the apartment under the previous Speaker. Publicity was given to a bill of more than £600 for food and drink in the Palace of Westminster in April 2010, when the financial controller of the House of Commons wrote informing Bercow that there were “items which have been outstanding for at least two months” on it; it was paid later in the month.
2010 general election
The Speaker of the House of Commons is traditionally seen as outside party politics, and is often not challenged by the main parties at general elections, including the 2010 general election. In September 2009, Nigel Farage resigned his leadership of the UK Independence Party to stand for Bercow’s Buckingham seat, asserting, “This man represents all that is wrong with British politics today. He was embroiled in the expenses saga and he presides over a Parliament that virtually does nothing.” John Stevens, another candidate, found support for his campaign from Martin Bell. Bercow also faced opposition from the British National Party and the Christian Party.
As Bercow lacked a party endorsement and therefore a campaign team, he sought to build one and a group of his supporters known as ‘Friends of Speaker Bercow’ solicited donations for the campaign, aiming to raise £40,000. When one of their letters was received by a member of the UK Independence Party, the recipient referred it to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, complaining that it appeared that Bercow’s fundraising campaign was operating from the Speaker’s Office, which is required to remain politically neutral.The Commissioner declined to launch an investigation because of the lack of evidence of involvement of the Speaker’s Office.
2015 general election
Bercow was returned as an MP in the 2015 general election. The election was notable for the 1,289 spoilt ballot papers.
Bercow married Sally Illman in 2002 and they have three children.She uses the name Sally Bercow and is arguably better known to the public than he is. His wife used to be a Conservative who switched to supporting the Labour party, campaigning for both her husband individually and Labour in the wider election in 1997, though Bercow and those close to him reject the view that she was especially influential in softening his right-wing political views.
Bercow is humanist, and before taking the role of Speaker was a member of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. When discussing the role of clergy in Parliament, he described himself in a Commons debate as “an irreligious person taking a secular interest in an important subject”.
Titles and honours
Styles of address
- 1963-1997: Mr John Simon Bercow
- 1997-2009: Mr John Simon Bercow MP
- 2009-: The Rt Hon John Simon Bercow MP
- Member of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council (2009)