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A great reforming Speaker departs. The Commons will never be the same

A great reforming Speaker departs. The Commons will never be the same
6 min read

Close to two-thirds of current MPs have never known a Speaker other than Bercow. How will they manage under his replacement?


When John Bercow was elected Speaker, the Commons had a majority Labour government, Gordon Brown was prime minister and the country wasn’t even aware a coalition government was an option. So much has changed, not least the House itself: just 220 of current MPs were first elected to the House before the 2010 general election. That means close to two-thirds of the Commons has no memory of any other Speaker.

This will have an effect on the election of his successor. Some MPs are determined there won’t be another Bercow, an interventionist Speaker, prone to showing off his knowledge, lecturing MPs and taking positions that others perceive as grievously partisan. Others are determined the next Speaker must continue with Bercow’s reforms. Many think it should be a woman. Others favour a Conservative candidate, claiming there hasn’t been a “real” Tory Speaker since Bernard Weatherill stood down in 1992. This view reflects the bitterness among some long serving Conservatives that John Bercow won in the final round in 2009 without the support of his party colleagues but with Labour votes.

The current Speaker has much to his credit. He has championed some groups of MPs, such as the parents of young children, for whom he went into battle and created a nursery. He has opened up his state apartments to hundreds of charities, though it is notable that gay rights groups are more likely to host their events in the Speaker’s House than less politically correct organisations. In contrast to the reforming Bercow, Betty Boothroyd has achieved something close to cult status as the best Speaker of modern times, with scant supporting evidence. Baroness Boothroyd was a formidable in the chair, but she reformed little. As so often in our parliament, myth trumps reality. 

The first thing to note is that there won’t be and can’t be a “Bercow” candidate. Every Speaker is different, every Speaker has their own strengths and weaknesses. It may be hard for some MPs to fathom, but many Speakers don’t speak more often than anyone else, don’t preface nearly every answer at departmental questions with an anecdote or an expression of opinion. It may be useful to remind MPs that Speakers are usually notable for saying very little from the chair, for avoiding anyone being able to divine their personal views from their rare utterances, for erring on the side of caution rather than throwing themselves into controversy. John Bercow was very much the exception rather than the rule. 

The second thing to note about the election of the Speaker is that too many MPs think deeply about who they will vote for in the first round and give little attention to who they will vote for in the last round. Your preferred candidate is likely to be knocked out before the final two. MPs will have little time between votes to consider their options, and in that final vote will have a choice between two candidates they might not have backed at all. 

Whoever wins, their character as much as their judgement will define their Speakership. Here are some helpful suggestions for the next person to sit in the chair. Prime Minister’s Questions has become an endurance test, with MPs restlessly wondering if it is ever going to end. It would be a relief if it returned to its intended length of thirty minutes. Speaker Bercow’s use of Urgent Questions to allow MPs to raise topical matters is to be commended, but their frequency has blunted their effectiveness. He will argue that he is the backbencher’s champion, yet too many UQs are granted to the opposition frontbench. Emergency debates are for emergencies. Most of all, the next Speaker must show respect to all MPs, not just MPs he or she likes. One of the most corrosive aspects of the Bercow years is the open contempt with which he treats some members of his former party. There is so much emotion wrapped up in those exchanges: his successor must be disinterested in personalities. We must never again have a situation where the Speaker thinks it appropriate to have a long running battle of wills and wits with one party or another. It may well be untrue that Speaker Bercow has favourites, but that perception is now well established. That must also end.

All MPs, from the PM to the newest elected, must be treated in exactly the same way. MPs will have to get used to not being called every time they stand up. MPs will have to get used to receiving short shrift for abusing points of order. MPs will have to get used to statements from the prime minister that last less than three hours.

John Bercow will righty leave the Chair with his head held high, the great reforming Speaker of our age. Let’s hope his successor learns from both his triumphs and his mistakes.

***

Many congratulations to the new Serjeant at Arms, Ugbana Oyet. He is eminently qualified to carry the Mace, and to revitalise an important office that has fallen from view in recent years. The first Nigerian-born person to hold the post, his background is as a chartered engineer.  Mr Oyet will be responsible for a team of 70 staff, covering the Serjeant’s Office, the access team, the doorkeepers and business resilience. The office of Serjeant at Arms is really quite old, even by parliamentary time scales. It dates back to 1415, when Henry V was on the throne.. 

***

Resplendent in his morning suit, the vice chamberlain of the Household appeared at the bar of the House at the beginning of a sitting last week. In one hand he had a message from Her Majesty the Queen, in the other he had his wand of office, which looks suspiciously like a snooker cue. Stuart Andrew read the message, which was disappointingly mundane, relating as it did to the appointment of an electoral commissioner. Love it or hate it, nobody does Royal flummery better than the British. MPs smiled indulgently as the VC performed his duties then scuttled off to get changed. 

 

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