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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
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The leading man

The speaker’s chair has become the crucible for the whole Brexit constitutional crisis. And John Bercow is loving it, says James Graham

“Look, I probably shouldn’t say this,” teases John Bercow, casting that infamously mischievous smile in the direction of a spokeswoman who joins us for our interview. “But I’m a bit odd.”

The Speaker of the House, as one of the most colourful yet controversial characters in contemporary politics, has been called many things. “Charming,” “smart,” and “passionate” are offered by some of the fans I’ve spoken to. David Cameron described him alternatively as “a little shit.” He seems to inspire love and hate, collecting adversaries and allies in equal measure. Indeed, the more his attackers plot to remove him from office—and there have been several attempts—the more his advocates rally around him. This is his fourth parliament in the chair, and it will be 10 years this summer, longer than any other occupant since the war. In this, his biographer Bobby Friedman describes him as “a lucky politician.” In recent weeks, however, it has appeared as though luck might run out for this declared Remain voter who is refereeing parliament’s great Brexit battles under the cloud of a row about bullying.

I once put the processes of parliament on stage in my play This House at the National Theatre, that concrete temple on the south bank of the Thames. But today the greatest and most dangerous political theatre is happening inside the real-time Gothic palace opposite. And the roving spotlight has once again alighted upon Bercow. Or perhaps, as some suggest, he has sought it out himself.

This is not the first time in the long history of the role that the presiding officer has found him or herself thrust into the centre of controversial events. First identified in 1258 and therefore one of the oldest political positions on the planet, the job’s primary purpose is to be the defender of parliament, and preserve its sovereign role from attack—whether that be from the monarch, or the modern executive. History relates many such moments, the most famous being when Charles I made what we refer to in my industry as “a bit of an entrance” into the chamber, demanding the arrest of five members for treason. To which it fell to Speaker William Lenthall to robustly but politely cast God’s representative some parliamentary shade, and show him the exit. Civil war followed, and parliament won. More recently in the late 20th and early 21st century, in the face of strong prime ministers and powerful governments, the Commons has often felt like an ageing screen icon, content to play the supporting role.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s April issue: Mark Damazer, the former controller of BBC Radio 4, tells the inside story of how the BBC has tried—and sometimes failed—to cover the political crisis that overshadows everything else. Elsewhere in the issue: Playwright and screenwriter James Graham profiles John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, as he takes centre-stage in the unfolding Brexit drama and Tom Clark examines the Independent Group and argues that they could well shake up the established political tribes. Also, Jennifer Williams highlights the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in Manchester—a city that is simultaneously experiencing a housing boom and a homelessness crisis.