Former Commons Speaker John Bercow on why he believes in Kim Leadbeater MP
Former Speaker and ex-Conservative MP John Bercow has said he hopes to persuade other former Tories to back Labour following his decision to become a member of Sir Keir Starmer’s party.
Talking to the Reporter Series after giving a speech at a fundraising event for Batley and Spen MP Kim Leadbeater in Liversedge, Mr Bercow also denied that his decision to join Labour was motivated by any hope of a peerage - which he previously said he was “sorry” to have been denied by the Conservative Government after stepping down as Speaker in 2019.
When asked if he would accept a role in the House of Lords if Labour were to offer him a peerage, Mr Bercow said: “As Willie Whitelaw once said - I think it is best to cross bridges only when one comes to them.
“I have had no such discussion with any member of the Labour leadership and I am not looking for anything.”
Mr Bercow was elected as Conservative MP for Buckingham in 1997 and became Speaker in 2009, stepping down from the role in 2019 as the General Election was held.
He announced in June he was joining the Labour party in protest at what he termed the “reactionary, populist, nationalistic and sometimes even xenophobic” of Boris Johnson’s Tory party.
“I’ve absolutely no ambitions in the Labour party, I’m not looking to revive a political career,” he said.
“Sometimes people have said to me, is this part of an attempted political comeback? No.
“I don’t have any formal role at all and haven’t asked for any formal role. My only role is to try and support other people in the Labour party if they think I can.”
Mr Bercow added he believed he believed he could highlight the merits of the Labour party to other past Conservative voters who are now wavering.
“I would like to think that I could persuade some audiences but it is for my colleagues in the Labour party to judge.
“I like to think I can persuade some audiences that if they have been able to attract me, somebody who was previously a Conservative, that local Labour MPs and candidates should be able to reach out to people who have previously voted Conservative and persuade those people.
“This country isn’t doing as well as it should be doing. A progressive, forward-looking, constructive Labour party can do a much better job.”
He said Kim Leadbeater had demonstrated in her successful election campaign in Batley and Spen this summer that it is possible for a strong Labour candidate to win support from former Tory voters.
“I believe in Kim. People often complain these days that there are identikit candidates and people are parachuted into constituencies without knowing them very well,” he said.
“Alongside all of her other qualities, one of Kim’s selling points is that she’s part of the Batley and Spen constituency.
"When she talks about serving the community, it is not a political slogan, it’s been a fact of her life.”
He said that was a point he made at the fundraising dinner for her.
“I wanted to come along and bang the drum and say this is someone who successfully managed to persuade people who hadn’t previously voted Labour to vote Labour.
“Kim Leadbeater was able to persuade people who didn’t necessarily feel any particular identification with the Labour party and in some cases, people who had previously voted Conservative, to vote for Kim. They did that because they believed in Kim and respected Kim.
“At this event, there were very large numbers of business people there - not of all of whom were natural Labour supporters. They all had one thing in common - they believed in Kim.
“They thought this is somebody who is a practical, moderate, common sense politician who wants to see business thrive, not least for the benefit of her constituency.”
Mr Bercow said he had known Kim’s late sister Jo Cox well when she was an MP and got to know her family and Kim better after giving a speech for The Jo Cox Foundation in 2019.
“Kim and her parents made the most enormous impression on me. I know it is a rather trite and old-fashioned expression but they are the salt of the earth.”
Mr Bercow said his decision to join the Labour party had followed a “long process of reflection”.
“It wasn’t just a spur of the moment, quixotic decision to join,” he said.
“I hadn’t been a member of a political party since 2009 when I was elected Speaker. But for 29 years I was a member of the Conservative Party.
“My decision to join the Labour party wasn’t based on any personal hostility to the Prime Minister, I’ve always got on perfectly well with the Prime Minister on a one-to-one basis.
“He’s never been rude or unpleasant to me.
“I think the Tory party has regressed and moved rightwards and that is very regrettable - they’re basically a pretty right-wing, nationalistic, Brexit sabre-rattling bunch of people.
“But by and large, although the Conservative party has got worse, it hasn’t fundamentally changed. I have changed over the years.
“I did my damndest to be a completely scrupulously fair Speaker.
"Sometimes I would be accused of letting debates run on too long - I used to call people from all sides of the House, all shades of opinion because I wanted everybody to have a say.
“The record will show I really did force ministers to stay at the despatch box answering questions until pretty much everybody had their chance to say what he or she wanted to say.
“But my own values have changed over the years and fundamentally I believe in equality, the spread of opportunity and the pursuit of social justice.
“Those are my core values and those values are much better reflected in the Labour party than they are in the Conservative party.
“There are many good Conservatives, I’m not trying to rubbish all Conservatives as I have a number of Conservative friends and we’ve not fallen out if they are genuine friends.
“But fundamentally I regard myself as a person who is left of centre, not right of centre.
“When I look at and listen to and watch the work of Kim, I think this is an MP who I respect and want to support.”
Mr Bercow’s latter time as Speaker was dominated by increasing controversy - from allegations of bullying (which he has denied) to his handling of Brexit debates.
He said he had no regrets about his time as Speaker.
“The short answer is I don’t. Did I make mistakes? Yes - to err is human.
"So could I go back to particular encounters and thought could I have handled that better or I was a bit too waspish to that person or I missed something there? Of course.
“None of us is perfect.
“But if you ask me overall do I have a regret about the approach I adopted to discharging the duties of Speaker, I don’t have regrets about that.
"I regarded it as the greatest privilege of my professional life.”