I think my colleagues on the pro-Brexit side of the aisle have been a little unkind in their response to John Bercow’s announcement that he’ll be standing down as chief referee in the House of Commons. Yes, he’s clearly done everything in his power to make life as difficult as possible for those MPs who want to implement the result of the 2016 referendum. Yes, his attitude to parliamentary precedent has been completely inconsistent, citing obscure, supposedly binding conventions to obstruct Brexiters one minute, then casually disregarding longstanding constitutional conventions the next. And, yes, the language he uses to express his contempt for any Conservative MP who so much as grimaces at one of his nakedly partisan rulings is unparliamentary, to put it mildly. ‘I couldn’t give a flying flamingo,’ etc.
But all of this is to overlook the vital public service Bercow has performed. Not as Speaker, obviously, but as the living embodiment of Short Man Syndrome. I’m on the small side myself and am constantly at risk of developing a Napoleon complex. When asked how tall I am, I tell people I’m ‘five-foot-eight-and-a-half’ — and that ‘and-a-half’ tells you everything you need to know about how insecure I am. Someone only has to challenge my authority — my kids refusing to go to bed, for instance — and my first thought is that I’m not being taken seriously because of my height. Even if a car refuses to stop at a zebra crossing, I attribute it to my size. But to prevent myself flying into an indignant rage, all I need do is conjure up a picture of the Member of Parliament for Buckingham, spluttering with self-righteous anger like some red-faced, angry dwarf. Once I can see Bercow in my mind’s eye, I know that if I do take umbrage I will just come across as some ridiculous, shouty little twerp.
As far back as I can remember, there has been someone on the public stage to play this role — a kind of pantomime-comedy figure who illustrates the danger of this particular vice. When I was growing up it was Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army played by Arthur Lowe (5ft 3½in). Then, in my twenties, it was Louie De Palma in Taxi, as immortalised by Danny DeVito (4ft 10in). More recently, Nicolas Sarkozy (5ft 5in) has stepped into the role — or, rather, stepped up, given that he stood on a box while making a speech on the anniversary of the Normandy Landings.
But no one has been better able to serve as a warning to short men like me than John Bercow (5ft 6in). He should have his own chapter in Shockheaded Peter: ‘The Story of the Boy Who Over-Compensated For Being Smaller Than the Other Boys.’
Who can now take over? There are some political figures who appear to suffer from Short Woman Syndrome — Nicola Sturgeon (5ft 4in), for instance — but no obvious candidates among the men. Sadiq Khan (5ft 5in) perhaps? His reaction to Donald Trump’s taunt about his size, when the President pointed out that Khan reminded him of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio except he was half his height, was disappointingly sanguine. No one seems as willing as Bercow to serve as a role model for how not to behave if you’re vertically challenged.
Then again, perhaps all is not lost. Johnny the House Elf may no longer be a participant in the great pageant that is parliament, but I cannot see him withdrawing completely from public life. No doubt he’ll pop up with irritating regularity on Question Time and Politics Live to hold forth about what a terrible state the country is in after we’ve left the EU — which I think we will in spite of his Herculean efforts. Or perhaps he’ll be made an offer he can’t refuse, like £250 a week to host a daily morning show on Channel 5 called Order, Order in which he referees spats between husbands and wives. Best yet, he’ll be a contestant in this year’s season of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!
Imagine the sheer, unadulterated pleasure of seeing the self-important toad being forced to eat kangaroos’ testicles. Or watching him being interviewed after getting zero stars in a bushtucker trial, Ant and Dec towering over him. Or witnessing the look of crushing disappointment on his face after he’s voted off ahead of half a dozen ‘celebrities’ you’ve never heard of. No, I think it’s safe to say that this itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie, silver-haired old meanie will remain in the public eye for some time.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.