Express & Star

Toby Neal: The Affair of the Shaving Foam - you couldn't make it up

A sideways look at the report of the 'Independent Expert Panel' into complaints against John Bercow.

Former Speaker John Bercow

Trust In Politicians, Part XIII.

That John Bercow, wonderful man. A great reforming Speaker, who empowered backbenchers.

Stand to applaud him, even though you're not supposed to clap in the House of Commons. But if you're the one being clapped, it's time to turn a blind eye to those old-fashioned rules.

The most magnificent thing of all about John Bercow is that he did all his good works despite the handicap of being surrounded by some people who were quite often useless (to use his words).

It is to be expected that great personalities like him have great traits. Dynamic, mercurial, and rather short, this force of nature had to strive to get those useless people around him reach his standards.

There was that incident in which he was so enraged about something that he threw a mobile phone on a desk, causing it to burst into hundreds of pieces, with an aide being hit by the shrapnel.

Or that time he was so angry that, red-faced, spittle was actually coming out of his mouth as he thumped the table and was waving his arms about. (Denied, in fairness to him.)

Another occasion "physically shaking with fury, his fists bunched and trembling, his eyes popping, he accused the complainant for over 15 minutes of incompetence, duplicity and subversion, casting himself in the role of wise Speaker when all around him were evilly-intentioned incompetents." (Any abuse denied.)

A man too with a great gift for mimicry, as in: "Robert, your scholarly cranium on the basis no doubt of the application of hot, wet towels over your head last night, what is your sage advice to us?"

How could any of the useless brigade consider that as belittling and demeaning?

All good-natured fun and top-level light banter.

As you may have guessed I have been reading the report of the "Independent Expert Panel" established by the House of Commons which considered the conduct of Mr Bercow.

I think my favourite bit was The Affair of the Toothpaste. Or it might have been The Affair of the Shaving Foam (there was a discrepancy in the evidence on this vital point).

Bercow The Great was on a work trip to Kenya with his secretary. Don't take toothpaste/shaving foam in your hand luggage, she warned him, it isn't allowed. His response was to shout at her in public and he "threw a temper tantrum and then sulked, refusing to acknowledge the complainant during the flight and on arrival".

When Mr Bercow left the office of Speaker, which is the highest office for an elected MP – that's what the report says, so it must be true – there were many tributes to him.

When he first announced that he was going, he got a standing ovation from the Opposition benches.

And his last appearance at Prime Minister's Questions, in which Boris gave some back-handed compliments, was the longest ever, at 71 minutes, because Bercow allowed proceedings to overrun.

On his last day in the post in October 2019, there were almost three hours of tributes from MPs to him.

This is the same Mr Bercow who, according to the panel, demonstrated "a marked abuse of power and authority".

Three people had complained about him.

"We conclude that he targeted these three complainants specifically and bullied them," said the panel's report.

In the case of two of them it was, the report says, "motivated by a rooted and prejudiced hostility to those who he perceived to be well-educated members of the establishment".

The MPs who clapped Mr Bercow and showered him with tributes will have known he was subject to bullying accusations, some of which go back over 10 years. But they clapped him anyway, as some of them saw him as their champion, their hero, or even an "intergalactic hero", to quote David Lammy, the shadow Foreign Secretary.

So the question is, if politicians clap and give a standing ovation to a serial bully (panel's description), how can they expect the public to have trust in their judgment?

MPs love to call for public inquiries about virtually anything, but none have so far called for a public inquiry into their fawning over a Speaker whose behaviour has been found to have fallen far below that to be expected of someone in public office.

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