ANALYSIS: Change is coming sooner or later to the Speaker’s chair
John Bercow has been the great champion of progressive reform for the last decade. But the race to replace him is underway, writes Tony Grew
We have become used over the past few years to dealing with profound change. From the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, to the Brexit referendum and the shock result of the 2017 election, the unexpected has become the norm. Often the seeds of change germinate almost unnoticed.
So it was on the first day back from the Christmas recess, when the Commons very nearly didn’t have time to debate the last piece of main business on the order paper. A change to standing orders is usually of interest only to the most hardcore procedure geeks, and the motion looked innocuous enough. Its appearance was deceptive.
In fact, the change agreed by MPs after just over half an hour was one of the most significant in many years.
It arose out of the recommendations of Dame Laura Cox’s report into harassment and bullying Commons staff, which the leader of the House Andrea Leadsom has pushed hard to implement. The Commons is self-governing. The monarch, the government, the House of Lords, the courts, none of them have primacy over the House of Commons. The Cox report landed like a mortar into Westminster last October. It demanded change, profound change, in the way the House operates and how MPs are held to account. Dame Laura recommended reforms to the independence of the process for determining complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by staff against MPs, namely conferring full voting rights on lay members of the Committee on Standards.
To a doctor, this would seem like a modest proposal. As SNP MP Phillipa Whitford pointed out, the General Medical Council has members of the public who rule on the behaviour of doctors. Jacob Rees-Mogg is not a doctor. Why do we think we are going to get better people from outside, he asked, who lack his mandate from the people?
Mrs Leadsom, supported by female MPs on all sides, pressed ahead. The female occupant of the chair during the debate, Dame Eleanor Laing, deployed some neat procedural footwork by moving the motion with just seconds to go. Some outraged Tory MPs, who had thought the motion could be talked out, objected, but then didn’t produce any tellers. A victory for change. The House will still decide whether and how to punish MPs but now lay members will get an equal say on the recommendations of the committee.
A decade ago, before MPs entered the long nightmare of the expenses scandal, the very idea of lay members voting on whether MPs should be disciplined would have been dismissed out of hand. Over that decade, MPs have been on a slow and painful learning curve when it comes to reform, much of it driven by female MPs not much interested in constitutional niceties that impede the introduction of baby leave or proxy voting or real rules against harassment of the weak by the powerful.
Their great champion, the germinator of profound change, has been for the last ten years or so the reforming Speaker, John Bercow. He closed a bar and turned it into a nursery. He has used his office to champion every progressive cause he has ever set eyes on.
But Dame Laura also called for reform of the senior management of this place. Mrs Leadsom is of the view that those demands for new blood at the top cannot be brushed aside. The clerk of the House has already announced his retirement, the Speaker pointedly has not.
Yet change comes, whether wanted or not. Last Monday Dame Eleanor did something else new. She decried how much time had been wasted earlier in the day. “It is a great pity that today we had urgent questions lasting for some two hours and eight minutes that were somewhat repetitive.”
There was more. “If Members insist on having their voice heard again and again, making the same point on the same matter, we will be in a position whereby an important debate such as the one that has just concluded has not had nearly enough time, but these matters are in the hands of Members.”
Both of those matters, granting UQs and how many MPs are called, are actually in the hands of the Speaker, who his deputy was careful not to criticise directly.
But the import of her words was obvious to all who heard them. Change is coming sooner or later to the Speaker’s chair. Speaker Bercow was front page news later in the week for his contentious over-ruling of the clerks in allowing an amendment to a motion he was advised was unamendable. He relished that avalanche of points of order a lot more than the avalanche he faced after the last PMQs of 2018.
It’s hardly a secret that a number of senior women MPs are already plotting their move into Speaker’s House, running on an agenda of profound change that the John Bercow of both 2009 and of 2019 would surely admire.