This interview was conducted in December 2009 and appeared in Total Politics magazine.
ID So what’s a nice boy from the University of Essex doing in a place like this?
JB: I enjoy it, I enjoy the role, I enjoy Speaker’s House. It would be dishonest and misleading to pretend I don’t. As Speaker you are the fortunate and temporary inhabitant both of a great office and of an exquisite building. There were 156 Speakers before me and there will be a great many after me. It is the office that is important not its incumbent, and I’m just going to make the very best fist of it for as long as I’m allowed and seems reasonable.
I suppose the point I was making, that 20-30 years ago when we were both students together, did it ever cross your mind that this would be the position that one day you would aspire to hold?
No! Absolutely not. I hadn’t given it a thought before I came into parliament and for a very long time afterwards. The first time the thought was planted in my mind was when it was put to me by Jonathan Aitken. It was in 2003. I‘d left the front bench on my own volition and Jonathan, in his rather philosophical way, said: “Well of course you’ll very likely will return, if you want to do so, to the front bench. But you know John there are always other ways you can make a success of a political career and make your contribution”. He mentioned his Godfather Selwyn Lloyd who became Speaker. That was the first time the thought was even communicated to me as a possibility. It wasn’t then and there I decided I’d like to do it, but, a couple of years later, towards the end of 2005 the idea did germinate in my mind.
Was there a point when you thought ‘I’m not going to progress in the Conservative front bench and so I really do need to think about what I’m going to do?
It’s very difficult to date it precisely. But it was at about the time of the election of David Cameron as leader. In June 2005 I had got myself on the chairman’s panel. I thought I was unlikely to be asked to return to the frontbench and secondly I was extremely doubtful whether I would enjoy it. That, I may say, by the way is not and is not intended to be interpreted as a commentary on David Cameron or indeed on any other leadership contender. It was simply that when I was on the front bench, although I enjoyed parts of it, and it is a great privilege, I didn’t enjoy enough of it, to be frank. And if I am really brutally candid about it: although I don’t think I’m devoid of ability and some contribution to make, I think on the whole I was a pretty lousy frontbencher. I was lacking in self discipline. I was not willing to commit to a collective line. I was a poor team player. And it was neither in my interest nor in the Conservative party’s interest for me to be on the front bench. When I was on the front I wanted to be on the back. Periodically when I was on the back I wanted to be on the front. And I thought, this situation is a recipe for discontent and unhappiness and that’s wrong because Parliament is a great privilege. So I thought come on , pull yourself together, you’re now over 40. Make a judgement about what you think you should do and stick to it. And I made the judgement that I prefer to work away on the chairman’s panel and if the chance came to stand as Speaker I would take it.
How does that qualify you to be Speaker? You said I don’t like sticking to a line, you don’t like rigidity. You don’t have a huge amount of latitude as Speaker. You have various conventions and rules you are there to implement. How did you think this job would be different to the restrictions you have to endure on the front bench?
You’re right that the Speaker doesn’t have huge scope. The Speaker doesn’t have huge powers the Speaker doesn’t have huge opportunities on a daily basis to make changes. But, the Speaker does have some opportunity to bring about change and the role of the Speaker, so far as I was concerned, was not something that should be considered to be set in concrete. In other words you could make some changes through exhortation and encouragement and working effectively with colleagues to bring about greater scrutiny. Secondly, you could improve and develop the Speakership to make it more outward facing. It was always in my mind that if I did stand for Speaker I would argue that the Speaker should not be a purely internal figure shrouded in mystique, dressed up in a fancy costumer and largely inaccessible to the public. Of course, the chair comes first, but the Speaker should be out and about engaging with civic society and in my first 5 months that is what I’ve tried to do.
Did you ask Michael Martin for any advice? If so, what did he give you?
I didn’t. And I don’t mean that in any disrespectful way to him. I didn’t
So he didn’t contact you to give you advice?
He didn’t – no. Michael Martin took a very hands-off approach to the Speakership campaign which led to my election, or which was absolutely proper. I have considerable respect for him, he had a very rough time. Like every other Speaker he had his strengths and weaknesses; he’s a human being. I’m sure at some point in the future we shall meet. I think he wants a bit of a distance; he wants to establish himself in his new role.
What’s been the most surprising aspect of the job so far – the thing which you thought, well actually, I hadn’t anticipated that?
It may sound rather naive. I hadn’t fully anticipated that, I’m not in any complaining about this for one moment, the extent to which the Speaker is said to be doing this or leading that or personally overseeing the other when very often it is not the case. You have to get used to the fact that the buck stops with you for all sorts of things. You’ve got to be thick skinned. You’ve got to have reasonably broad shoulders; you shouldn’t take criticism personally or fret about it unduly. You should listen to advice and take not of valid criticism but you have to recognise that a lot of newspapers are tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. You shouldn’t be diverted from your strategic goals by day-to-day chatter.
What did you make of this apparent antipathy among many Conservative MPs towards you? You clearly didn’t get that many votes from them and yet you are there to be in command of the whole House of Commons. You wouldn’t be human if while sitting in the Speaker’s Chair you didn’t look at the Tory benches and think to yourself, “well you bastards didn’t vote for me...”
The Speaker has got a duty to be completely impartial and demonstrably fair. I said, Iain, in standing for election that that is how I’d go about the job and I meant it. It’s probably human nature that people nevertheless speculate as to whether you’ll lean a bit this way or a bit that way or whether your private preference is for this one or for that one. The truth is you do have a professional obligation to block that out and to make fair judgements. So if you say to me, do I sit there thinking this set of people or that set of people is hostile and therefore either I’m going to be hostile back or alternatively I’m going to bend over backwards not to be, the honest answer is “no”. If you ask me why there has been some Conservative hostility it would be coy and surreal of me to decline to answer and I would be quite happy to offer an answer. I think there are a number of factors. First of all I think there is a very natural Conservative disposition to favour someone for the role of Speaker who is somewhat older, who has perhaps served in parliament for somewhat longer. If we can have Prime Ministers running the country in their forties why can’t be have Speakers running the House in their forties?” Secondly there is no denying that very significant numbers of Conservative Members felt that I hadn’t been a team player and they didn’t see why I should get the prize and the opportunity of being the Speaker. I can understand that point of view and even respect it but it doesn’t mean I have to share it.
Wasn’t the real reason for their antipathy the suspicion among many that you were considering defecting to Labour and you were being overtly friendly to Labour in some of the speeches you were making?
You’ve beaten me to it! I think there were people who felt that I had co-operated quite a lot with Labour and Liberal Democrat Members and, yes, “he’s one of our MPs” but only just. And my answer to that is to say that I never had at any time any intention of being other than a Conservative member of parliament or, eventually if I was fortunate enough, to be Speaker. I have no desire whatever to be a member of another political party and I don’t say this with any resentment – I wouldn’t be meeting you if I did - I don’t say it with any resentment at all but I know you yourself have once or twice commented that you really felt I was the most likely suspect. The truth of the matter, which to be honest, only I know – and possibly Sally my wife – is I never had any intention whatsoever in joining another political party. Yes there has been much gossip and speculation over the years, but it was never my intention at any time. I received approaches before ever I thought about becoming Speaker. I received various approaches from various senior people in the Labour Party saying “aw, you know, we’d love to have you on board, we think you’re being discarded by the Conservatives, we think you’d be quite at home with us.” Senior people, not in a formal setting, but people sidling up to you, you know; ex-ministers, current ministers, backbenchers, whatever. And, I always said no, because I felt at heart that I was most comfortable being a for a whole variety of philosophical and practical reasons. So yes, I’m sure there were people who thought, urgh, we don’t want him he’s been mooted to be someone whose going to defect, we don’t want him he cooperates with the other side too much, he makes speeches that they like and so on. All I can say on that, Iain, is that I had no desire to shift at any stage. I felt myself fundamentally to be a progressive Conservative.
You were caught up in the expenses scandal yourself and repaid some money. Do you find it more difficult to act as a spokesman for cleaning up the system when you were involved in the whole Telegraph saga in the first place?
I don’t I don’t find it more difficult because I’m not in denial. I ‘fessed up to the situation which confronted me. The issue that came up on me which I confess I had not been anticipating was the payment of capital gains tax on the sale of a property in 2003. I can tell you absolutely candidly, from the day I sold that property and for that year completed my tax return until the day I was approached by the Daily Telegraph about it, I hadn’t considered the matter. I took professional advice at the time, and I did what I was told any citizen lawfully could do which was to take steps within the law to minimise my tax burden. However, if you say to me, is it actually right that a Member of Parliament should be expected to treat his or her property for tax purposes in the same way as for expenses purposes the honest answer is “yes”. When therefore I checked, and I genuinely did not know, for I knew I’d sold my property for a very small profit, and I just didn’t remember whether I paid tax on that or not. Do I complain about the fact that the Daily Telegraph highlighted that matter? No I don’t complain at all. I think there are people who have some grounds for complaint. I think the Daily Telegraph sometimes is unfair to people. I don’t complain about it, and it doesn’t cramp my style as Speaker because we’re not electing a saint we are electing someone who is going to chair effectively in the chamber, stand up for the rights of backbenchers, be an effective chair of the House of Commons commission, which has got an important set of responsibilities and be an effective and robust advocate of democratic politics on behalf of this place to civic society. I am not saying I am some sort of saint but I am certainly saying that I think it is possible for all of us to put the past behind us by accepting responsibility and committing to thorough going and immediate change.
Why haven’t any senior officials in the Fees Office lost their jobs? It seems to me that they were the ones that failed in their duty, just as much as politicians.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will in due course be up and running. Some staff from the Resources Department will join IPSA but by no means all, and I am not anticipating that the most senior staff from the House of Commons Resources Department will be joining IPSA.. Repeat, I am not anticipating that the senior staff...
I got the hint... Were you embarrassed by the coverage of the amount of money that’s being spent on these apartments?
I was sorry that the coverage was what it was. I requested a number of adaptations to the apartment above these rooms because I am the first Speaker to live in the apartment with a young family at least for a hundred years, if not in recorded history, and there is a difference between a couple in their sixties living in a property and a couple with three very small children. Some changes did have to be made. I’m sorry that sometimes the point didn’t get across that where changes are made, those are for the ongoing benefit of the property. For example – I give you an example – yes I can tell you I spent public money on child locks. I defend that; I don’t want my kids falling on the terrace or into the River Thames. But it’s true that we also acquired a new sofa suite. We did that, Iain, because the sofa suite there was massively uncomfortable, and it was completely unsuitable for children. There was a considerable amount of work done that was maintenance work which the House authorities expect to do. I’m sorry that it was represented as being sort of an act of greed or selfishness on our part. It was nothing of the kind and I just wish that these papers were prepared to offer a fair characterisation of these things.
Does PMQs serve a purpose any longer? Does it not need to be drastically reformed? Not just changing the day but allowing you as Speaker to pick random MPs each week to ask the questions. Wouldn’t that be a better way of doing it? It would virtually eliminate planted questions.
I do have some sympathy for that idea. I certainly think that the start of the next parliament is the time to make reforms. But such a major rethink is possible and desirable. I don’t know if it will get rid of planted questions altogether because the whips will always want to be sure a certain message is percolated across their benches, and they’ll have thought about that in advance. I don’t think you can totally remove that possibility. But there is some merit in what you’re suggesting, and we can certainly look at it. That isn’t a “I hear what you say” answer. I think it’s a good idea.
I do think there’s something to be said for the cut and thrust of exchanges between the prime minister and the opposition. I still feel we could move to a model in which those exchanges were shorter and there could be more time for back benchers to take part. The time taken up by the exchanges between the Prime Minister and David Cameron and Nick Clegg is a very substantial part of Prime Minister’s Questions. Certainly it’s more than half. I am deeply discontented and inclined to look for any opportunity to foreshorten it. It’s difficult to do anything more than that at the moment but if you ask me would I prefer that there should be less time for the front benches and more time for the back then the answer would be ‘yes’ and I would like to look at how we can achieve that in the early weeks and months of the next parliament.
You have in the past stopped Gordon Brown trying to turn it into Leader of the Opposition’s Question Time. Is that difficult, because if you do it once, if you’re going to be consistent, you need to do it every time? And yet, if you did it every time, frankly we wouldn’t have a PMQs.
I take your point. There is a trade-off here between consistency and having the event of Prime Minister’s Questions in any meaningfully recognisable form at all. So sometimes I’m afraid you have to work on the basis that you will intervene if you think there is a rather severe case of a minister or the Prime Minister going off piste and talking about opposition policy or trying to get the opposition. And other times you will tend to let it go. I don’t actually accept that you have to intervene every time. Ministers have to know that you might, and on the whole that will act as a brake. On the one occasion when I did have to intervene on the Prime Minister I didn’t do it with any desire to score a point or to put him down, it was just that I felt it had been indicated in a very explicit way, it had been advertised, that the intention was to talk about Conservative health policy, and I felt it was not appropriate.
Can you let us in on the conversation between you and your wife when she told you she wanted to be a Labour candidate?
[Laughs]. I can’t be an advocate of more women in Parliament, which I was consistently for a number of years, and then try to stop my wife exercising her democratic right. I know some people find this really hard to understand that you can possibly be married to, or partner with, somebody who’s got a different party affiliation from you. Of course there are people who are going to find it odd, but I know Labour people who say oh they couldn’t possibly be married to – in Parliament – with a Tory. It just genuinely happens to be the case that my wife Sally and I have not argued much about politics over the years. We’ve disagreed about the Iraq War; I supported it, she was against it. We disagreed about hunting because I defended consistently – and I have no regrets about that - whereas she’s anti-hunting. And those are two examples. We strongly disagreed on Europe, where I took a basically euro-sceptic position - I voted against all the treaties, and I was always opposed to joining the Euro, whereas Sally’s a very keen Euro enthusiast. She has long been a Labour supporter and indeed since I think 1997 a Labour Party member, and I was, until June 22nd of this year, a Conservative. So was I taken aback or shocked, or did I try to dissuade her? No, no, no.
The point I’m making is that it’s going to inevitably bring press attention. We’ve already seen it with the Mail on Sunday coverage. That’s a distraction for you, isn’t it? An unwelcome distraction.
The way in which the media report these things can be an unwelcome distraction but an unwelcome distraction is not a good reason to try to stop somebody pursuing her democratic rights. So yes, if the way the press report it – you’re asking me is the way the press report it a mild nuisance? Yes, it is but I’m not going to have my life dictated by it.
Look, I respect that people have got their own views about these things. One thing I do think is quite wrong and unfair is for somebody to say: “Oh well, it’s improper for the Speaker’s wife to be engaged in acts of politics.” That’s wrong. It may well add to the spice of life, it might well cause me some difficulties in terms of press coverage, but to suggest that it’s somehow constitutionally improper is quite wrong. And the simple reason for that is that the obligation for impartiality applies to me. It does not apply to Sally, and deep down I ask you to consider this, and hope you might even agree. It’s a deeply sexist view based on the idea that the wife is my chattel.
If Sally ever got into Parliament that would be no problem. I’ll tell you something: if anything, Iain, it would be a problem for her because I would have to demonstrate very clearly that she wasn’t getting preferential treatment. Julian Lewis is my best mate in the House. Julian never lobbies me to be called. He said to me on day one, “I’ll never do that John”. And on balance he probably loses out a bit because I’m very concerned not to call him particularly and be accused of favouring a friend, so Julian accepts that stoically.
You are facing a challenge at the next election. Isn’t this convention that the Speaker isn’t challenged a fundamentally undemocratic one?
I don’t think it is fundamentally undemocratic because it isn’t a rule, it’s not a law. It is a convention and I think that you have to look at what the alternative would be. If you said, well, party candidates from the main parties will stand, it will be quite difficult to get anybody to stand for the role of Speaker. It would be very difficult to have more than a one-term Speaker because obviously a lot of people do vote, even now with declining party loyalties, on the basis of party allegiance
If we chose to reconfigure the Speakership in the way that it operates in many other countries where the Speaker doe vote in all normal votes, not just where there’s a tie as here, but in normal votes, and does campaign for a party, that would be a different situation. But I don’t sense any enthusiasm on the part of the House to do that.
The second point is that now and again – I’ll try and deal with it up front – it is suggested perhaps what should be done is that the Speaker should be given a separate constituency, usually known as St Stephen’s, which represents a small area around Westminster, and that the local constituency he or she is taken from should be able to hold a normal party election. The House of Commons can always decide to do that if it wants; my attitude is that, as such a decision would affect me directly, it’s not right for me to be either to be an advocate of it, or resistant to it. The only thing I would say is I do enjoy having constituents and believe that I’m still well and truly able, and demonstrating that I’m well and truly able effectively to represent the people of my constituency. I do just want to underline the fact that it is both possible and it would be necessary for the Speaker to continue to be a highly active constituency MP, but I won’t face, I suspect, major party competition, but I will face opponents.
Worst Christmas present you’ve ever given?
I once gave some lingerie to my wife that she regarded as naff, but I won’t describe it further. And I have not repeated the exercise.
Wig or breeches
The thing you wish you’d known at sixteen?
That short-term debt shouldn’t have stopped me qualifying for the bar and practising at it. My only major regret is that I would have liked to have been a barrister. Partly because I have no private money and it was actually a bit beyond sixteen, I decided not to pursue it.
Best movie you’ve seen this year?
Favourite tennis player?
Unquestionably Roger Federer. In my view, and I’ve seen every Wimbledon final since 1972, Federer is the greatest player I’ve ever seen.
Speaker or Wimbledon finalist?
What book are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just started Sarah Water’s book ‘The Little Stranger’. I’m a huge fan of Sarah Waters; I think she’s a fantastic writer. I’d like to get her into the Speaker’s House and do a reading.
What makes you cry?
Two things make me cry since I’ve become an MP: coming across really very hard-hit kids who are either unable to get the help they need or just suffer from a terrible disability, or the most excruciating poverty. And the other thing was when I went to the Thai/Burmese border I met people there who’d seen their parents shot dead in front of them, and then parents who’d seen their kids shot in front of them, and I remember meeting them. And it still brings tears to my eyes now.