THE ancient Romans held that Caesar’s wife should be beyond reproach. That’s not a view held by Sally Bercow, the wife of House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, who last week entered the Celebrity Big Brother house. To her supporters, it’s another sign of how refreshingly modern and unstuffy Sally Bercow is. To her enemies, it’s yet another example of shameless self-promotion. But the political wife, who makes Cherie Blair look like a model of dignity and self-restraint, doesn’t care.
Whether posing semi-naked for a magazine photo shoot in the shadows of parliament, or confessing to drinking until she blacked out, and having sex with men she’d just met, nothing, it seems, is off-limits for the 41-year-old mother of three. As she settles into a new routine with housemates – including former Atomic Kitten and cocaine addict Kerry Katona, David Hasselhoff’s ex-wife Pamela and X Factor rejects Jedward – what will she chat about around the Big Brother table? The efforts of her husband to bring “respect and dignity” to parliament? Or the sexually adventurous behaviour in her 20s which led to her being nicknamed “Sally the Alley”?
Few political wives arouse such powerful emotions as Sally Bercow, who has been described (by herself) as the “Carla Bruni of British politics”. From the moment her husband was elected the 157th speaker of the Commons, following in the footsteps of beloved figures such as Betty Boothroyd, George Thomas and Bernard Weatherill, Sally Bercow has come to be seen as part Lady Macbeth, part thorn in his side.
Blamed by many for moving Bercow, once a right-wing Tory, to the reformist centre ground, the Labour activist and former advertising executive has become the widely disliked wife of a widely disliked man. When the diminutive Speaker barked at a Conservative backbencher to “bow” when he passed, he was told to his face “you’re not f***ing royalty”. The disparity in height between the Bercows – she’s 5ft 11in, he’s 5ft 6in – is the source of much sniggering, and has cemented the widely held view that she wears the trousers in their household.
Born in Surrey on 22 November, 1969, to Eileen and Ronald Illman, a builders’ merchant, she is the eldest of four. When her father died, the then 16-year-old used her inheritance to send herself to the exclusive Marlborough College, which Samantha Cameron also attended. Bercow has claimed she never fitted in “with those Alice bands and everyone coming from a house with a long drive”. After school, she went on to Oxford to read theology but dropped out after two years, a fact she neglected to include on her CV which reportedly led to her later being fired from her job with a London PR firm. A notorious party girl, she started out Tory and was social secretary at the Oxford University Conservative Association, where she helped organise an event with male strippers.
She and her future husband met at a national Conservatives’ student conference in Nottingham in 1989 where John Bercow, then a rising right-wing star, was guest speaker. After six months, he dumped her for being “too argumentative” but they got together again and in 2002 he popped the question in an Indian restaurant near the Commons. Their oldest son has autism and they are parent patrons of the charity, Ambitious about Autism.
Like her husband, the statuesque Sally has been accused of political opportunism. She addressed the Tory Party conference twice as a delegate before switching to the Liberal Democrats, after which she went back to the Tories before joining the ranks of Labour ahead of Tony Blair’s election as Prime Minister. In 2010, she stood and lost as a Labour candidate in council elections. A staunch Blair supporter, she actively campaigned for Ed Balls to become Labour leader and is on the party’s approved list of candidates for MPs. An obsessive Twitter user, she regularly uses it to bash the Tories and has criticised David Cameron, calling him a “merchant of spin”.
She has been publicly criticised for politicising her husband’s neutral role, a criticism which has been rejected by John Bercow who said, “the obligation of impartiality does not apply to my wife who is not my chattel”. Described by those who know her as “brash, outspoken and not very popular”, Mrs Bercow has described herself as “a Marmite person”, adding “I’m an acquired taste”. A university contemporary recalls she was “hard, ambitious and glamorous… very tough”. Friends defend her as “fun, feisty and fearless”. She gave up smoking for eight years only to take it up again last year and hasn’t touched alcohol since 2001.
After a 2009 interview in which she spoke of her alcohol-fuelled exploits when single, she was ridiculed and dubbed a “loose-knickered trollop”. She claimed to have given the interview to clear the air before standing as a Labour candidate. But earlier this year she was at it again, telling a journalist how living in her husband’s grace and favour apartment in the Palace of Westminster had done wonders for their sex life. She said: “I never realised how sexy I would find living under Big Ben with the bells chiming.” Are these outbursts due to undisciplined enthusiasm or calculated headline grabbing? Undoubtedly she enjoys rubbing Tory critics up the wrong way, but many others wince at the way she glories in the perks associated with being Speaker’s wife while pronouncing that she is her own person. To those who say her actions reflect badly on the office of Speaker, she snorted: “Does that mean I should be a wife who walks dutifully three paces behind my husband and keeps her mouth shut and makes cucumber sandwiches?”
She is reportedly receiving £100,000 to appear on Celebrity Big Brother after persuading her husband that her decision wouldn’t harm his career or political reputation. Of her motivation, she said: “I want to stick two fingers up to the Establishment, who think it’s not the sort of thing I should do.” Her husband is reported to be “not exactly chuffed” at her decision. She has said: “I am a personality. I’ve got ambitions of my own.” Over the coming days we will see that personality and ambition in all its glory.