THERE’S something slightly odd going on with Sally Bercow.
In the six months after she was fined for libelling Lord McAlpine on Twitter, and particularly in the days following McAlpine’s death, the consensus seemed to be that she was an airhead, a loudmouth and a source of humiliation for her husband John who was fighting an uphill battle to retain his dignity as Speaker for the House of Commons in the face of all the MPs and journalists sniggering behind their hands.
This wasn’t her first faux pas, of course. Previously, she’d allowed herself to be photographed wearing nothing but a bedsheet and appeared in Celebrity Big Brother. But it was the tweet, with its “innocent face” pay-off, that transformed her from laughing stock to liability.
Since the Sun published photographs of her in a “passionate clinch” with a man in a London nightclub on Tuesday, there seems to have been a slight shift in public opinion. A degree of sympathy, even a sneaking admiration, has begun to creep into some, mostly female commentaries (even though more photos later emerged of her on another man’s lap).
Some, including Michael Gove’s wife Sarah Vine, have praised her indomitable will and her refusal to toe the Westminster line. Others have suggested that – with an autistic son – she ought to be allowed to let off steam, as if casual nightclub gropes were the prescribed treatment for domestic stress. When Bercow herself insisted her liberal husband was comfortable with her indulging in the odd snog, a number of people responded: “Quite right. Who are we to judge your marriage?”
And that is true, up to a point. All relationships function differently and if the Bercows allow each other a degree of sexual latitude, that’s their business. Yet, strangely, I didn’t hear anyone making the case that Andy Marr’s drunken smooch with his series producer in 2012 was evidence of his rebellious spirit. Back then, the phrases “pathetic” “midlife-crisis” and “for God’s sake, get a hold of your libido” seemed to dominate the public discourse.
There are several possible explanations for this difference in attitude. One is that Marr, unlike Bercow, had form on the infidelity front. Long before he locked lips with the unnamed woman, he had an affair with a fellow journalist. His wife Jackie Ashley stood by him and arguably had the right to expect more than that her faith in him should be abused again. The second is that at no point did Marr suggest Ashley was at ease with his lunging. She was, he admitted, “very cross” with him.
But I don’t think it’s stretching things too far to suggest there’s also degree of double standards in play here. If any man in the public eye was copping a feel of random women on wild nights out, while his long-suffering wife was a) trying to be taken seriously in a high-profile job and b) looking after three kids, I don’t think many people would be championing his independent streak.
Of course, such double standards are rooted in a history of female oppression. After centuries in which wives have been expected to remain chaste and docile while their husbands cavorted, women who stand up for themselves are a breath of fresh air. When Bercow first arrived on the political scene, she came across as a convention-defying maverick.
By admitting to a misspent youth characterised by heavy drinking and one-night stands, she stuck two fingers up to the establishment. By refusing to be silenced by her husband’s role as Speaker, she proved she was her own woman. But – as her rebel yell morphed into an attention-seeking whine – the whole ladette schtick, pioneered by whisky-drinking radio presenter Zoe Ball – palled. Gradually, it dawned on people that there was no virtue in being outspoken if you’d nothing much to say. And that maybe encouraging women to behave as selfishly as men wasn’t the best way to go.
And behaving selfishly is what Bercow’s doing, isn’t it? We can go on pretending she is some beacon of liberty brightening up the fusty old corridors of Westminster, but her “looks bad but so isn’t. Hey ho, Gotta love meeja”-style tweets are vacuous and she doesn’t seem to give a damn how her actions are affecting her husband’s reputation.
Nor does she ever seem to ask herself if he is really as “cool” about her dalliances as he says. It’s possible, but many people of both sexes affect indifference because they fear if they they’ll lose their partners otherwise.
There is another reason why we ought not to be too blasé about Bercow’s antics. In a 2009 interview she admitted that at one stage she drank so much she went to Alcoholics Anonymous. “I was a stroppy drunk, picking arguments with my bosses over stupid things,” she said.
She talked too about how her free-wheeling lifestyle wasn’t “as jolly as it sounds” and vowed she would never be alcohol-dependent again. Yet now she is maurauding round London, staggering out of taxis and enjoying male attention.
While conceding she’s entitled to do whatever she wants, I reckon those who care about her should be a little less easy-going and a little more concerned. After all, Ball, in whose stead she seems to be following, eventually crashed and burned and only saved her marriage after going into rehab. It would be a shame if Bercow, who clearly cherishes her role as a mother, were to find herself in the same position.