Speaker Bercow most senior figure outside the royals
Speaker Bercow most senior figure outside the royals(Reuters)

It must be one of the most unusual, even bizarre, households in Britain. And it seems to be in some sort of crisis.

The accommodation is a mixture of dark, Addams-Family style Gothic, complete with heavy drapes and a huge four-poster canopied bed previously used by monarchs, and a modern, metropolitan, child-friendly flat dominated by a massive TV. Contradiction lies at the centre of this family, then.

One resident awakes each morning to don silk gown, gold-buckled shoes and wig before being led in a procession of men-in-tights to the place of work where the job is to sit in a large green leather chair all day shouting at people. Sometimes the costume extends to a flowing black satin robe trimmed with damask and gold lace and more bling than an LA rapper. But that is just the man of the house.

The woman of the house, and mother of three, has to decide which reality TV show to appear in, whether to pose for another newspaper spread, and if so in how few clothes, and just how much of their private life to reveal to the world on a chat show or on Twitter.

Or at least that used to be the case in Chez Bercow, otherwise known as the Official Residence of the Speaker of the House of Commons, situated underneath Big Ben with panoramic views over the Thames and Palace of Westminster. But things are changing.

The residents are, of course, controversial Commons Speaker John Bercow, "Big John" as he is regularly lampooned on a BBC political programme, and his formerly-infamous wife Sally who suddenly appears to have hit some sort of personal turning point, even crisis.

To be fair, Bercow's job as Commons Speaker requires much more than just sitting in his leather chair shouting at unruly MPs. Although there does seem to be quite a lot of that, particularly during Prime Minister's Questions. And he has already abandoned much of the flamboyant finery that used to be worn every waking hour. He prefers a lounge suit and simple robe when in the Chamber.

His wife's "job", according to her detractors, should have been to fade into the Gothic wallpaper of the Palace and quietly support her husband in his official duties, not come on like parliament's equivalent of The Only Way Is Essex.

She was never going to play that game, believing her critics were good old-fashioned sexists and she had a life of her own to lead. But her increasingly "out there" antics have suddenly come to a head and she has very publicly appeared to fall apart, telling a Sunday newspaper she really does want to fade into obscurity.

Most tellingly, after her latest night out saw her pictured falling out of a cab in classic "celeb upskirt" shot, she declared: "I know I'm deeply unsuited to being the Speaker's Wife, and maybe if John had known he was going to get this job he wouldn't have married me because he'd have seen trouble ahead."

Golden rule

But why do we care? Isn't Sally Bercow just another of the interchangeable, tabloid-filling minor celebrities whose antics are forgotten within minutes?

The reason is, Speaker Bercow is himself a highly controversial figure who has radically changed the perception of his job, which makes him one of the three or four most senior officials in the land outside the royal family.

Bercow has proved true to his words when elected in 2009 that he would attempt to make the Commons less rowdy and offer more time for ordinary backbench MPs to have their say.

His critics, and there are many amongst his former colleagues on the Tory benches who opposed his election, believing he is a Labour "sleeper" - a fact born out, they claim, by his marriage to a Labour supporter and one-time would-be MP.

They claim his reforms have actually seen him breaking the golden rule that Speakers remain impartial and that all too often he referees in favour of the opposition and that he, and his wife, have demeaned the constitutional and historic role. And many of them want him out.

That simmering resentment and Bercow's desire to slap down his detractors has seen him issuing some contentious rulings and aiming some downright humiliating remarks at MPs.

He is accused of routinely using the flimsiest excuse to interrupt the prime minister when he is in full flow against Ed Miliband during question time in a deliberate campaign to undermine him. And it is certainly the case that he has more than once cut David Cameron short just as he was reaching his point and ordered him back to his seat.

Most recently, when the prime minister attacked Miliband's energy price freeze policy and branded him a "con man", Bercow infuriated the Tory benches by declaring: "The word conman is frankly unparliamentary and the prime minister is a man of great versatility in the use of language. It is a bit below the level."

And only days ago, in what many believe was his sharpest barb yet, he turned on the prime minister's aide, Gavin Williams, who was barracking Miliband and snapped: "his role is to nod his head in the appropriate place and fetch and carry notes. No noise is required."

If Tory MPs could have resorted to the ancient royal method of dealing with troublesome Speakers, a swift beheading, they would not have hesitated. But much as they want to get rid of him, there is no obvious mechanism so they will have to wait until he retires after the next election. Probably.


Inevitably, some have put his alleged partiality and bad temper down to the influence and antics of his wife, six-foot Sally, who he first met at Oxford when she was 19, although their on-off relationship only ended in marriage in 2001.

As soon as she crossed the threshold of the opulent apartment in the palace of Westminster she ordered a £45,000 refurbishment with an extensive list of requirements. She later insisted much of the work was needed to make the place child friendly, particularly for the couple's eldest son, Oliver, who is autistic.

But she also embarked on a series of increasingly public performances, starting with an interview revealing her heavy-drinking and one-night-standing youth.

There is no doubt that much of the venom aimed at her was prompted by that good old-fashioned sexism. But she over-compensated. She posed for a picture wrapped only in a bed sheet and spoke about her sex life with her husband. She inevitably went into the Big Brother house only to be voted out as soon as viewers got the chance and she tweeted every detail of her life on Twitter.

In one example after the bed sheet picture, she also exposed the effect her behaviour was having at home, she tweeted: "Oh bugger. I've been done up like a kipper. Mr B is going to go potty," she wrote. It didn't stop her.

And, while her husband was clearly less then delighted by some of her antics, he always insisted in public that she was not his chattel but had a life of her own.

Ultimately it was her tweets that landed her in seriously hot water when she wrote earlier this year: "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*", following BBC Newsnight's allegations a high-profile Tory was a paedophile. McAlpine sued for libel, won damages of £15,000, and Bercow was landed with a huge extra bill for costs rumoured to be near £100,000, luckily covered by a no-win-no-fee deal.

Then only days ago she was pictured falling out of a taxi, revealing her underwear. And it all seemed to be too much.

In an extraordinary interview in the red top Sunday Mirror newspaper she once again bared her soul, but this time to claim in breathtakingly contradictory style that she didn't give a "sh*t". "Yes, I was a bit tipsy. But I didn't vomit in the street, I wasn't rude to anyone. I didn't do anything any other mum wouldn't do on a night out. To hell with what people think."

But then, with eyes brimming with tears, she declared: "I don't know what to do any more. The floodgates have opened - which is my own fault. And I don't know how to close them.

"What I do know is I don't want to be out there any more. I just want to go back to being anonymous. And I know people won't buy that."

And most revealingly: "I know I'm deeply unsuited to being the Speaker's Wife, and maybe if John had known he was going to get this job he wouldn't have married me because he'd have seen trouble ahead.

"Politics is full of pompous snobs and they would like to put me back in my box. But I won't go.

"Yes, I like a few drinks, but I'm very strict about how much. I only started to drink again last year after 10 years off it. I gave up because in my twenties I had a drink problem.

"Truthfully, I hate publicity. I can't wait till John's job is finished so we can move out of that stuffy grace-and-favour ­apartment."

Contradictory, yes but certainly revealing. And as for her Twitter feed, there is now just a single tweet: "I have apologised sincerely to Lord McAlpine in court - I hope others have learned tweeting can inflict real harm on people's lives."

Indeed it can.