LONDON — Our interview with the House of Commons speaker made famous for his choice put-downs and signature bellowing of “Order! Order!” began, as one might expect, with John Bercow imposing a bit of order.
The photographer wanted Bercow to sit in one seat because of the light. Bercow wanted to sit in another because of tradition.
Bercow regularly cites tradition to explain his decisions as the British Parliament’s referee. In March, he invoked a 400-year-old legal precedent to block Prime Minister Theresa May from presenting her rejected Brexit deal again and again.
But, when he sees fit, Bercow adds a modern twist to his interpretations of parliamentary rules and practice. He is aggressive in pushing for the rights of lawmakers, even when that means wrestling for control with the prime minister and her cabinet.
Bercow, 56, has become something of a global celebrity because of his starring role in Brexit — and his oratorical and sartorial flourishes. When we met him in his inner sanctum, in the crimson-carpeted and high-ceilinged State Room of the Speaker’s House at the Palace of Westminster, he was wearing a stylish blue suit and a hot pink tie he described as “rather understated by my standards.”
Just hours earlier, May had jolted the British political world with an announcement that she would step down after three years in the top job and failing to deliver Brexit. So we opened by asking: What did Bercow make of May’s departure?
“If you’re asking, ‘As a human being, can I understand and sense her sadness?’ of course I can. It would be bizarre if I couldn’t,” Bercow said.
Both Bercow and May joined the Conservative Party as lawmakers in the 1997 intake. They don’t know each other very well, he said. But they had discussions in the very room we were in, and May was “the very embodiment of propriety. She was efficient, she was businesslike, she was courteous.”
Bercow talks like this, in rolling rhetorical waves.
By tradition, House of Commons speakers give up their party affiliation upon taking on the job. Bercow did so in 2009. But despite the neutrality of his role, Bercow is, he admitted, something of a “Marmite character.” Like the yeasty British spread, he is loved or loathed by people.
Supporters say he is one of the most innovative, reforming speakers in modern times, helping to give the little guy a bigger voice and making Parliament more open and accessible to the public.
Critics charge that he is a pompous showman and note that he has been accused of bullying by former staffers — accusations he denies. Some Brexiteers say he has intervened in Brexit by putting his thumb on the scale in favor of pro-Europeans.
He vehemently disagrees that he has been biased in Brexit decisions.
“It’s not the speaker’s job to deliver Brexit or to seek to stop Brexit. It is the speaker’s job to champion the rights of Parliament,” he said.
Bercow is in the United States this week, speaking publicly about British politics and his role in it. At the Brookings Institution in Washington on Tuesday, he took exception to those who think Parliament might stand by as Britain heads toward a no-deal Brexit — crashing out without a withdrawal deal or transition period, falling back on World Trade Organization rules in its relationship with Europe.
“There is a difference between a legal default position and what the interplay of political forces in Parliament will facilitate,” Bercow said. He added: “The idea that there is an inevitability of a no-deal Brexit would be a quite wrong suggestion. There is no inevitability whatsoever about that.”
For Bercow, the House of Commons shouldn’t be a theater of the absurd but a performance place for ideas, where lawmakers introduce, debate, challenge, defend. In our conversation, he assessed that some parliamentarians are good at oratory, others at debate, and that those are not necessarily the same thing.
Whom has he admired as parliamentary performers? He rattled off a list of present and former lawmakers.
The late Tony Benn, a Labour Party lawmaker for 47 years, was a “mesmerizing speaker.” Robin Cook, a foreign secretary under Tony Blair, was “not an orator, but was razor sharp intellectually.” Malcolm Rifkind, a cabinet minister for Margaret Thatcher and John Major, “could make a speech about anything without notes and without hesitation, deviation or repetition.” And Kenneth Clarke, currently the longest-serving lawmaker, known as the father of the House, is a “formidable performer.”
We decide this is the right time to ask, maturely: You practice your put-down lines, right? In front of the mirror? You must.
Bercow once told Britain’s finance secretary, “Stick to your abacus, man.” To an education secretary, he said, “You really are a very overexcitable individual. You need to write out 1,000 times, ‘I will behave myself at Prime Minister’s Questions.’ ”
Mash-ups and memes of Bercow’s best moments have gone viral on social media.
“I absolutely promise you that I have never practiced ‘put-downs,’ as you style it,” Bercow told us. “It’s spontaneous. It’s just what comes to me at the time.”
Do you have a thesaurus at home?
“No. I do not,” he said. “I have just always enjoyed language.”
Bercow grew up in London, the son of a taxi driver who was something of a language pedant.
His father had strong views about ending a sentence with a preposition and thought it a “heinous sin” to split an infinitive. “ ‘Son, you can say “radically to change” or “to change radically,” but you shouldn’t say “to radically change.” It’s not correct use of language.’ . . . And so I do have this rather mannered and old-fashioned style. But it is authentic. It is not contrived for anybody. It’s just something I think I inhaled and inherited from Dad.”
One gets the feeling this is how he talks to his wife, three children and cat (called “Order”; female; good mouser).
We were advised beforehand that Bercow was not keen to talk about President Trump, who is due in Britain for a state visit next week. In February 2017, Bercow said Trump should not be permitted to address Parliament — like his predecessors Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had done — citing the reasons of “racism” and “sexism.”
When it came up in conversation anyway, Bercow, talking into his chin, said he had “nothing to retract or add” to his 2017 comments.
He offered a similar refrain at Brookings on Tuesday. Though, in that conversation, he suggested he may have been wrong on the occasions he permitted the emir of Kuwait and Chinese President Xi Jinping to address both houses of Parliament. As far as his decision on Trump, he added, “Nothing has happened since then to cause me to change my mind. Although some people might say, ‘Well, quite a lot of things have happened’ to cause me to remain of the same view.”
Our interview took place in a room filled with portraits of speakers. In Bercow’s, he is standing in the House of Commons, chest puffed out like a bantam rooster. He is wearing a black gown and not a wig or knee breeches or silk stockings like those in the other portraits. This is Bercow, someone who wants to keep some tradition and modernize, as well. “Reform, not revolution,” is how he puts it.
At the bottom of the portrait is a coat of arms. A courtier talked us through it. The phrase “We are equal” is bracketed by rainbow colors, to symbolize LGBT rights — Bercow was in favor of gay rights long before it was fashionable in the Conservative Party. There are cannonballs to represent his love for tennis — don’t get him started on Roger Federer — and there are swords that represent the University of Essex, his alma mater.
The rising ladder in the picture isn’t there to represent an assault on a castle but to demonstrate how Bercow climbed far even though he didn’t attend an expensive private school or study at Oxbridge, like many of his colleagues.
Near the end of our interview, we asked Bercow about speculation over when he will leave his post.
“I’m certainly not planning to go at the moment because, apart from anything else, there is a very big challenge for the country. It is a key time for the U.K., with important decisions to take,” he said.
Over the next year, Britain will see the ushering in of a new prime minister, possibly a general election and the success, failure or maybe even reversal of Brexit.
“I think it would be rather curious to desert my post at a time like this,” Bercow said.
William Booth contributed to this report.