Miriam Lord: John Bercow expatiates for K Club with loquacious prolixity
The florid rabbiting of the former speaker, although entertaining, can become trying
Former speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow was the special guest keynote speaker for the County Kildare Chamber business breakfast at the K-Club. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan
On his last day as speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow selflessly endured three hours of lavish tributes then had a monumental row with a Conservative Brexiteer before bidding a tearful farewell as colleagues stood in applause.
After 10 years as one of the most high-profile and controversial speakers of the modern era, Bercow’s last orders in the chamber were a final dollop of Westminster spectacle from the limelight-loving MP.
Now he is scaling new career heights, the sort of which he could only have imagined when he was making global headlines in the Brexit-fuelled cauldron of the UK parliament. These days he is doing the circuit, and doing it on a full-board basis: breakfast, lunch, dinner – he’ll speak after any of them.
The inevitable book is coming out next February. But it’s wise to start touring now, before the novelty wears off.
Two weeks on from those box-office goodbyes in London, Bercow is already living the dream. On Thursday morning he was guest speaker at the biannual business breakfast of the Kildare Chamber of Commerce. Such is the lot of your jet-setting, highly-sought-after international speaker. He travelled with his agent.
The 8am start in the K Club was a sell-out, with more than 350 guests snapping up the tickets in anticipation of some political enlightenment and entertainment from the bellowing breakout star of Brexit. And, if nothing else, the occasion would provide valuable business networking opportunities before they even properly started their working day.
The last person to address the business breakfast was Leinster rugby coach Stuart Lancaster. He gave the chamber a framed Leinster jersey, which was raffled after Bercow left.
“Just throw your business cards into the bowl,” said the MC.
Among the guests were former Ireland and Arsenal footballer Niall Quinn. Bercow, an Arsenal season-ticket holder, was delighted to meet him in the K Club the night before. Also at the breakfast were businesswomen Jackie Lavin, Sharon Smurfit and former minister of state for Europe Lucinda Creighton, who has moved to Kildare. The local TDs were out in force, jockeying for position with the honoured guest at the top table.
When it was time to begin, the hotel didn’t ring a little bell. Instead, out of nowhere, there came an unmerciful roar: “Orderrrgh! Orderrrgh!”
Sure wasn’t it only himself, doing the funny catchphrase, the one that will follow him around for the rest of his days and that he will doubtless grow to loathe with an unspeakable passion. But for the moment, the affable former MP for Buckingham is very willing to comply with requests to bark his bankable words.
No notes, no lectern, he wears a radio mike and paces around the small half-moon platform, barely breaking for breath
Speaking of which, “Unspeakable” is the name of his memoir, and apparently Bercow was given a “substantial” six-figure advance by his publishers to rush it out in time for the post-Christmas book token bonanza. He was also, it was whispered by some in the K Club, given €10,000 for his appearance in Kildare.
A contender for the title of the eagerly awaited tome might have been To Cut a Short Story Long. Because while Little John may be short in stature (he joked at length about being short but “perfectly formed”) he more than makes up for this with long-windedness.
Bercow wears his prolixity with pride – part man, part thesaurus. Not to put too fine a “forsooth” on it (a word that appeared about six minutes in), his florid rabbiting can become rather trying.
“Is it too early to have a drink?” muttered our companion as Bercow breasted the 30-minute tape, still “expatiating” upon the fascinating minutiae of his role as speaker and procedural repartee he had with obscure MPs.
Value for money
But Bercow aims to give value for money to his audience – “What I will, in a catch-all phrase, describe as the vast miscellany of distinguished political, commercial and local authority leaders here present”.
No notes, no lectern, he wears a radio mike and paces around the small half-moon platform, barely breaking for breath unless a pregnant pause is required for theatrical purposes. When he occasionally talks to a standstill, he points the toes of one foot forward, heel off the ground, for all the world like he is about to break into a slip jig. Which would have been sublime.
The former speaker is an avid tennis player. You can see it when he moves around, bending his knees as if rushing towards the net to make a low return.
He had a special word for Lucinda Creighton “who knows her onions, and in particular, knows the importance of Ireland’s relationship with, dependence upon and benefits from the European Union”.
She didn’t ask a question in the Q&A session that followed the 40-minute routine, with all but one of the questions being asked by the local politicians, who went weak at the sight of the microphone.
Now he can say that 'Brexit is the biggest foreign policy blunder that Britain has made in the postwar period'
It’s a pity the Ceann Comhairle, Bercow’s Irish counterpart, couldn’t make the gig. The eloquent Seán Ó Fearghaíl, a TD for Kildare South, is far less taxing on the verbosity front.
Naturally, the speaker tried to explain what it is to be “the speaker”.
“A lot of people say to me: ‘Well, what’s the essence of it, John?’ ”
And he says the first thing is to know everyone’s name: 649 colleagues in all.
“That is just a sine qua non of being able to discharge the obligations of the office of speaker.”
There were only three occasions when he had to instruct an individual MP to leave the House. One of them was the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, who “accepted it with equanimity and good grace”. However, the speaker subsequently found out that Nigel was met at the front door by a staffer holding a packed suitcase.
“In other words, the whole thing was premeditated. He had been absolutely hell-bent on getting himself kicked out of the chamber that day – although I, of course, was not to know that that the time.”
The chair also has to keep an eye on the chamber clock.
“In fact, over the years I’ve erred on the side, I readily admit, possibly to your considerable irritation, of running things on a bit,” declaimed Bercow, beetling along the platform.
“The prime minister, Boris Johnson, on my last Prime Minister’s Questions, said that I appeared to have been a devotee of, or to have sucked at the cup of Prof Stephen Hawking because I had discovered the concept of extending time.”
As indeed, had the breakfast guests in Kildare. But at least they had the (very nice) sausages and rashers before the speech.
It was 20 minutes before Bercow mentioned Brexit. You could sense his business audience perking up. He made no bones about his opposition to the move, which is now something he can talk freely about and, obviously, does.
Now he can say that “Brexit is the biggest foreign policy blunder that Britain has made in the postwar period”.
He doesn’t believe a general election will resolve Britain’s Brexit conundrum, and “the idea that we are, any time soon, going to get Brexit done is, in my judgment, for the birds”. We will be debating it for the next five, possibly 10 or even 15 years, he predicts, suggesting a second referendum might happen yet.
The UK needs to “look outwards, instead of being hermetically sealed or indulging a sort of nostalgic, romantic dewy-eyed, Rule Britannia view of the world which is discombobulated from the reality of where we stand now”.
There was much of interest to forage from the entertaining politician’s verbal tangle. By the time his memoir is launched, hopefully it won’t be the only Bercow oeuvre that has been edited.