Politics 22 November 2018 | 17:28

John Bercow’s yellow card: ‘ref, are you serious?!’

22 November 2018 17:28

This Wednesday marked 100 years since the Qualification of Women Act, which gave women the right to stand as MPs. In a strange twist of fate, the evening before, a cross-party football team of female MPs, Commons staff and journalists were also due to play their first match.

When it was cancelled thanks to a clash with votes, five members of the Women’s Parliamentary Football Team took a ball into the House of Commons in their shirts for a kickabout. Hannah Bardell, SNP MP for Livingston, tweeted a video of herself engaging in a bit of keepy-uppy.

So far, so harmlessly inspirational. A bit of light relief in a relentlessly bleak month for MPs. But behind every woman with a football, there’s an insecure little man with an opinion. And in this case, a public yellow card.

The Speaker of the House, John Bercow – or as I like to think of him, a walking set of testicles; a man physically incapable of speaking without a sneer, kind of like the Mouth of Sauron if the Mouth of Sauron was a gout-ridden drunk – saw fit to make a statement to the Commons.

‘It has been brought to my attention,’ he began, ‘that some football skills were displayed in the chamber yesterday evening… I think I can speak for us all when I say that our historic chamber should not be used for this type of activity…’

I think I can speak for all of us when I say – ref, are you serious?!

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the type of activity that the Commons is regularly used for. Bullying, insults, Machiavellian machinations and aggression – and that’s just Bercow. Let’s reflect on what women face in their roles as MPs every single day: death threats, misogyny, harassment, disrespect and social media doxxing.

If anyone’s making a mockery of those hallowed halls of democracy, it’s not the women playing keepy-uppy; it’s the men playing stabby-backy.

In case anyone was failing to, in Cartman terms, respect his authority, Bercow made sure to stress that he had already received some ‘gracious, indeed fulsome’ letters of apology, from Tracey Crouch, Stephanie Peacock and Louise Haigh.

On the 100-year anniversary of women even being considered as potential MPs, much less respected as equals, the fact that this puffed-up little oik saw fit to publicly spank these women like the naughty schoolgirls he wishes they were speaks volumes. Bercow, a man who is still facing widespread calls to resign over allegations of bullying and failure to tackle an insidious culture of misogyny and sexual harassment, chose this pathetic hill to die on.

It wasn’t long after the 1918 statute that women were banned from playing football in the UK, after an explosion of the women’s game during the First World War, when a generation rose up to fill the absent men’s places in both munitions factories and on the football field. In 1921, the FA banned the game as ‘unsuitable for females’. That ban persisted for a full 50 years.

Even now, the women’s game lags miles behind the men’s, in terms of funding, endorsement, audience and respect. Female footballers still face all that you would expect, from rampant misogyny to ridiculously low salaries.

You may remember that Tracey Crouch, the Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford – and a qualified football coach and FA referee – was barred in  2011 (by the FA, incidentally) from playing with the men’s Parliamentary football team.

That said, I’ve written before about how this year marked huge strides in the sprint towards equality in the beautiful game, with more female pundits and sports reporters than ever before. The women’s World Cup next year will see a massive increase in coverage and audience. The England Lionesses made it to the semi-final in 2015 and look to be in an even stronger position. Perhaps in 2019, football really will be coming home.

With that in mind, it is high time that female MPs had their own side. And considering the appalling state that Parliament is in – the divisions, the resignations, the bloody battle for Brexit and the unspeakably ugly tone of debate – it is nothing but positive to see a bit of cross-parliamentary unity; some Christmas football in No-Man’s Land.

So, come on Bercow, let’s see you try and take them on. Try a cheer, instead of a sneer. Let’s see you get in the game and try to tackle what these women face every damn day. Come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough.