Is John Bercow really a bully?

Adults in a place of work should stop using the word ‘bully’ about anyone who offends them.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Brexit Politics UK

We might have a new government and be on the brink of leaving the EU, but some things never change. John Bercow can still be relied on to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. The end of his time as speaker of the House of Commons has not, it seems, meant an end to the accusations of bullying that have swirled around him for many years.

In the latest twist, Lord Lisvane, once Bercow’s most senior aide and chief Commons clerk, has presented a dossier of complaints against his former boss to the parliamentary commissioner for standards. Lord Lisvane worked for Bercow for three years before retiring in 2014. The dossier is understood to detail incidents in which Bercow bullied and humiliated staff and used ‘inappropriate language’.

We’ve been here before. In 2018, Bercow’s former private secretary, Angus Sinclair, broke a non-disclosure agreement to go public with accusations that he had faced angry outbursts, undermining, obscene language and mimicry from the man who was then speaker. In the same week, former Black Rod David Leakey told the BBC’s Newsnight that he had witnessed Bercow’s ‘bullying and unreasonable’ behaviour. Yet another aide, Kate Emms, lasted less than a year working in Bercow’s office before being signed off with sickness reported to be connected to alleged bullying.

Bercow has always denied these claims. He once said there was ‘no substance to any of the allegations’. When they first surfaced, MPs appeared keen to help Bercow avoid scrutiny – they blocked an inquiry into his behaviour on the grounds that allegations dating back more than seven years could be investigated only in exceptional circumstances. The fact that, at this time, Bercow was thought by many to be using his position as speaker to support MPs intent on keeping the UK within the EU was, of course, purely coincidental.

Perhaps Bercow was right to deny being a bully. Bullying was, not that long ago, an accusation left behind with the end of childhood. It was used quite specifically to refer to children who intimidated their peers through fighting or persistent name-calling. Shocking though it seems today, cries of bullying often resulted in parents and teachers addressing the bullied rather than the bully. Children were taught to stand up for themselves and to ignore name-calling. All this has changed over the past couple of decades. Nowadays, bullying is not only taken extremely seriously – it is dealt with pre-emptively. Schools run anti-bullying weeks even if they have no reported incidents of bullying.

At the same time, bullying has left the playground and entered every walk of life. We learn that adults bully their children, husbands bully their wives, children bully their parents, neighbours bully neighbours across the garden fence and colleagues bully each other in the workplace. Bullying behaviour extends far beyond physical abuse and is now understood to encompass ‘passive aggressive’ or ‘covert’ behaviour. It may be apparent in ‘sarcasm, condescending eye contact, facial expressions or gestures’. When definitions become this broad, it may be possible for someone to be a bully without even realising it.

Who knows what went on in the office of the speaker under Bercow’s reign. Thanks to the actions of a previous cohort of MPs, we are unlikely ever to find out. It pains me, as a passionate Leave voter, to come to Bercow’s defence. But in an intense working environment, when people are under pressure, long hours are demanded and mistakes are made, it is not unusual for tempers to fray and emotions to run high. Bullying may not be the correct term to describe Bercow but the accusations against him suggest that, at the very least, he is a thoroughly unpleasant individual with appalling management abilities.

In response to the latest round of allegations, Bercow has said: ‘During the five years that we worked together, Lord Lisvane had ample opportunity to raise any accusations of bullying with me. At no stage did he do so… the timing of this intervention is curious.’ He’s right. Surely a man as powerful as Lord Lisvane could be expected to stand up for himself and his colleagues in the face of a blustering Bercow? Bercow is also right to question the timing of Lisvane’s accusation, coming, as it does, off the back of Jeremy Corbyn’s widely reported nomination of Bercow for a peerage.

What is really outrageous about Bercow is not that he shouted at his small House of Commons team but that he did everything within his power – and indeed sought to extend his powers – to thwart the will of 17.4million Leave voters. Bercow should never be forgiven for the terrible disservice he did to British democracy in turning parliament against the people. Insult would be added to injury should Bercow now be rewarded for his time in office with a place in the House of Lords.

Fortunately, Boris Johnson’s government does not appear keen to grant Bercow the peerage he seems to think he is entitled to. It’s just a pity that the government needs to hide behind accusations of bullying to justify the decision. The fact that Bercow has been nominated to the House of Lords by Corbyn tells us the Labour Party remains not only tone deaf to public sentiment, but also thoroughly anti-democratic to boot.

Joanna Williams is associate editor at spiked. She is the director of the new think tank, Cieo. Find out more about it here.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


David J

4th February 2020 at 10:41 am

According to The Spectator, “…John Bercow’s ‘Order! Order’ calls, meanwhile, became a bestselling ringtone for German smartphones.”
In fairness, Bercow did all right when he was my MP. But the Speaker job seemed to turn his head, exemplified by driving his wife Sally’s car, even though it was plastered with a smutty sticker.

Simon C

2nd February 2020 at 5:13 pm

Except we’re not talking about ‘every walk of life’. We’re talking about Parliament where they act like a bunch of spoilt kids. In no other profession would you get away with the behaviour MP’s get away with. And they have the audacity to refer to themselves as honourable members? ‘Member’ definitely, not so much ‘honourable’. If Bercow has done what he’s accused of then equating that with playground bullying seems quite apt.

Hugo van der Meer

1st February 2020 at 1:06 pm

Bercow is simply a loudmouthed lout who has no business in politics.

Aunty Podes

31st January 2020 at 11:35 pm

The obnoxious twit! Why is that so many little men (in stature) are also small in mind yet have such an inflated ego and astronomical delusion of their import?

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Neil McCaughan

28th January 2020 at 8:39 pm

He’s an obnoxious little shit, a strutting pompous poltroon. Just another reason to regret the disappearance of the stocks.

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Stephen Phillips

27th January 2020 at 10:24 pm

There is a fine line between bullying and demanding a high standard of work.
I have had to deal with accusations of ‘bullying’ from people who were being performance managed due to their low standard and high expectations of the company.
Also those who were simply being bullied because their manager was unable to motivate. In that case it is the manager who needs to be performance managed.
With the Millennial’s low standards and high levels of expectation it is difficult sometimes to distinguish where the line is.

Geoff Cox

27th January 2020 at 7:49 pm

I was thinking today about how emasculated we have become in the UK. This is all part of the feminist plan to undermine men and masculinity, of course. What is wrong with Ben Stokes having some fruity discourse with a spectator who was giving him some? A few years ago, this would not have happened, because if it had, a Ben Stokes equivalent would have been over the fence and getting physical – and no one would have been surprised.

Steve Roberts

27th January 2020 at 4:01 pm

As Williams writes any attacks against Bercow should be because of his antidemocratic actions, Corbyn has no problem with his proposal as he is a revealed as an antidemocrat himself leading an antidemocratic party, stick together lads.
As for the rest and especially Johnson he finds it a little difficult to openly challenge Bercow for his antidemocratic activities – it seems to be conveniently forgotten this motley crew of MP’s almost all opposed the referendum result and most wanted to accept May’s deal, an antidemocratic treaty – lets wait and see how much we “leave” now.
So Bercow is a bully they all cry, when adults act in this manner ,which is quite infantile, adult responsibility disappears and this lot are controlling the nation . Time for a rethink and they haven’t been in office for two minutes.

Marvin Jones

27th January 2020 at 3:01 pm

There must be no ermine for the vermin. This is the biggest problem with this country that once was the most powerful in the world, but now has been contaminated by people like Bercow, who must and will be rewarded for being totally unaccountable for making monkeys of most of his lifeless peers.

Francis Lonergan

27th January 2020 at 2:33 pm

We have seen his hectoring, rude and belligerent behaviour in the house itself when he chose to admonish members that got under his skin so the idea that he behaved even worse in the back corridors is hardly surprising. The government should reject attempts to get him into the Lords, which should be abolished in any case.


27th January 2020 at 12:53 pm

The bullying accusation is probably just a ruse to exclude Bercow from the Lords. The real scandal is that the House of Frauds still exists in 2020. It is an affront to democracy. It offends against principles of natural justice. It is a hive of nepotism and corruption. The LibDem proposal for an elected chamber with 20 percent of the members selected for their outstanding expertise in a given area is eminently sensible.

This country just can’t get modern democracy right, can it? Go to Finland or Germany if you want to see what a modern democratic polity looks like…

brent mckeon

29th January 2020 at 6:10 am

Nice to agree 100% with you for a change’, the Lords must go and be replaced by a mostly voted in institution.

Steve B

1st February 2020 at 1:18 pm

There’s little enough interest in voting for the Commons! On the other hand, the Lords has historically been a foil both for the monarchy and for the commons. Get rid of people being voted into it, return it to being an elitist organisation that (generally) has the best interests of the country and its people at heart – and which can police itself quite satisfactorily…

Michael Lynch

27th January 2020 at 12:25 pm

The knives were out for Bercow the minute he stepped down; he made way too many enemies in the Tory Party. After all, he did everything in his power to turn the people against Parliament by denying their democratic rights. It would therefore be an affront to promote this tyrant to the Lords; they have their own problems without making it ten times worse for them by having this despot was foisted into their ranks. I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for his kind and he must now pay the price for his outrageous behavior. Whatever it takes to keep him out of politics is fine by me. Let him go eek out a living as a lotus eater on the lecture circuit if he wants; no more public money for him ever again.

Marvin Jones

27th January 2020 at 3:03 pm

Michael, he will have all his desires and wishes. All narcissistic, arrogant, undeserving vermin do.

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