Sir Lindsay Hoyle: “When the Speaker decides to go, I may well enter that race. But I’ll certainly wait for the starting gun first.”
Lindsay Hoyle has spent his entire political career fighting marginal seats in tight elections. As thoughts turn to who could replace John Bercow in the Chair, the deputy speaker is keen not to jump the gun. But is the Labour MP mulling a bid for one of the highest-profile jobs in British politics? He talks to Sebastian Whale
In 1964, at the tender age of seven, Lindsay Hoyle drudged the long drives and farms of the Ribble Valley to deliver leaflets for his father, Doug, who was trying to become an MP. Not only was this his earliest exposure to campaigning, it was also his first experience of “child labour”, he tells me in his broad Lancashire accent.
It was another ten years before Doug Hoyle would enter parliament. His Commons career came to an end in 1997, by which point his son – then a 17-year veteran of Chorley council – was preparing to begin his.
Rather than inherit his father’s safe seat of Warrington North, Hoyle wanted to prove himself. “You’re always living in somebody else’s shoes if you’re not careful and what you have to do is step out of it and make your own name for yourself,” he says.
Few would dispute that Hoyle has gone on to stake his own reputation in parliament. Well-liked across the House as an able and effective deputy speaker, the Bolton lad has accumulated many admirers. A stickler for doing the right thing, he is keen not to indulge speculation about his future. But, like it or not, the Labour MP is the current frontrunner to take on one of the most coveted and high-profile jobs in British politics.
Portraits of previous chairmen of ways and means are hung in chronological order across the top of Hoyle’s parliamentary office, which resides down a largely untrodden corridor in the Palace of Westminster. The pictures are all of men – no woman has ever held the position, which doubles as the most senior of the deputy speakers and comes with the duty of overseeing Budget debates. Those who went on to become Speaker have a wig pinned to the top of the frame. I wonder whether Hoyle’s will have that fortune when it is his time to be immortalised.
Hoyle, who was knighted in the 2018 new year’s honours list, was born on 10 June 1957. He went to Anderton County primary school and Lord’s College in Bolton. He has lived in his constituency of Chorley all of his life. His second wife, Catherine Swindley, went to school in the area and succeeded him as a Labour councillor for Adlington in 1998. His eldest daughter, Emma, used to work at his constituency office. His second daughter, Natalie Lewis-Hoyle, tragically died aged 28 at the end of 2017.
Unsurprisingly, the Hoyle household was a political one. His mother, Lynda, served on the council until her husband was elected an MP in 1974. Hoyle became a councillor aged 22 – then the youngest to have done so in the local authority – though few in his party had given him much hope. “I thought, well, I like that challenge.”
Outside of politics, he ran his own textile and screen-printing business. Ahead of the 1997 election, he was selected from a crowded field to be the party’s candidate for Chorley.
Prior to polling day, Hoyle received a call at home. It was Tony Blair. “Is Doug there?” the then Labour leader asked. “This is how good Tony Blair is, he didn’t expect me to pick that phone up. Just in case I did, he said, ‘is that Lindsay?’,” Hoyle recalls. Blair, ever the slick operator, exchanged pleasantries with Hoyle about his campaign, before being passed on to his father.
Doug Hoyle, a former chair of the Parliamentary Labour party, looked shocked after hanging up the phone. Blair had offered him a place in the House of Lords. “There’s no way I’m going to the Lords, I don’t believe in it,” he told his son.
Hoyle, whose mother passed away in 1991, encouraged his father to mull it over. Doug Hoyle did accept the offer and remains a Labour peer to this day. He has always voted to scrap the House of Lords whenever the opportunity has come up. His son is grateful for the time they’re able to spend together in Westminster. “It keeps him busy, keeps him going,” Hoyle says. “He moaned all the way through, it took him about two years to get over it and in fairness, he would say now it was the best thing he ever did.”
Despite the positive words of fellow Lancashire native, Chris Matheson, now Labour MP for Chester, Hoyle took nothing for granted on polling day in 1997. “I’m the worst candidate possible,” he says. Tory MP Den Dover had represented Chorley for 18 years. His pessimism was misplaced – Hoyle won by nearly 10,000 votes.
Hoyle never received a frontbench role during the Labour government. His work to ensure the self-determination of Gibraltar – an issue he took up after three constituents were held at the border between Spain and the Rock while on holiday – precluded him from ministerial life. “I did blot my copy book very early on,” he recalls. Was that something he regrets? “Absolutely not,” he replies. “I still think it was the right thing to do.”
In 2010, Hoyle was approached to see if he would like to run to become a deputy speaker, who for the first time would be elected. Having fought marginal votes throughout his political career, he pondered: “Well, maybe I ought to have a go at this.”
Nearly nine years into the job, Hoyle has picked up a few ideas on what it takes to be successful in the Chair. “It’s about having humour, the skills and the ability to hold the House, and it’s about getting the temperature right… it’s about complete fairness and independence,” he says.
Hoyle has been praised for his performances during Budget debates – most notably when he admonished Ed Balls for waving around a copy of the Evening Standard at the start of George Osborne’s 2013 address. “I’ve never wanted to be in that position where you have to throw somebody out of the House. I like to think that we can always see a way through and make sure we keep good order at the same time,” he says. “We’ve seen many speakers and many deputy speakers come and go. Each one has a different style. Hopefully, my style is appreciated.”
He has also had his fair share of clashes, including a memorable back and forth with former SNP leader Alex Salmond during a Brexit debate at the start of 2017. Hoyle had cut off SNP MP Joanna Cherry after agreeing with her party’s whips that they would get one more speaker in the debate with a two-minute slot. An almighty row ensued. “In fairness to myself and Alex, we sorted it out there and then and had a chat the next day about these things. It was a misunderstanding,” he explains.
Hoyle’s time in the Chair has overlapped with John Bercow’s tenure as Speaker. They both entered the House in 1997 and served on the Trade and Industry committee together. How would he describe their relationship? “I always think I have a good relationship with everybody in the House, including Mr Speaker. He’s my boss!” Hoyle booms.
“Like everything, it’s about styles, isn’t it? We have different styles. In the end, he’s the Speaker. We are part of the Speaker’s team and we’ve got to get on with doing our jobs and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Bercow had pledged to step down in the summer of 2018 but has yet to confirm when he will depart the chair. He has faced allegations of bullying two former private secretaries – which he denies – and Dame Laura Cox concluded that the current Commons hierarchy was not well placed to redress the culture of parliament.
Hoyle, who is keen not to criticise any individuals, says everybody who works in the House must be treated correctly and have access to the support they need. He would like to see an expansion of the in-house wellbeing services to ensure that MPs’ constituency staff are included.
“Who worries about them? I worry about them. If I take my own office, you don’t know who’s going to come in that door at nine o’clock in the morning and how many different people you’re going to see and the different conversations. I worry about what kind of effect that has on MPs’ staff as well. That’s why I really do believe that we need to expand the wellbeing service to make sure we’re doing outreach as well,” he says.
Hoyle was in the Chair when the March 2017 Westminster bridge attacks took place. He put the Commons on lockdown as information about what was going on outside dripped through. His wife was heading to Westminster at the time. An hour or two passed before he was notified that she was safe. Though he is stoical about the impact the experience had on him personally, he recognises that those who witnessed the tragic events are still dealing with the consequences. “That’s what I want to make sure that we’re good at, making sure that we have long-term support not just when there is a problem and an issue. That’s why we could do so much more on the wellbeing service within this House,” he argues.
Hoyle, who chairs a consultative panel on parliamentary security, is cognisant of the threats faced by MPs today. He encouraged colleagues to take taxis home from parliament when the Brexit debate heated up around March and April. “Threats, intimidation, bullying, all that is having a real effect, and it’s having a real effect on MPs here. The nastiness that’s come in, the numbers are beyond all belief,” he says.
He would like for Parliament Square to become partially pedestrianised to give greater protection for MPs and the public around the estate, and for activists to be given an allocated space for protests. “If you come out of those front gates, it should be closed beyond the Lords right through to the junction. I think that would make a safer environment. There are not many people who would have vehicles coming past parliament so close,” he argues. “The fact is, we’re quite vulnerable out there. Westminster bridge, if nothing else, we’ve got to learn from that. And London Bridge. In fact, Nice… New York… you can go around the world, people are using vehicles.”
Dame Eleanor Laing fired the starting gun on the race to succeed Speaker Bercow in an interview with The House magazine back in February. Since then, Labour’s Chris Bryant, Tory veteran Sir Edward Leigh and SNP MP Pete Wishart have all announced their candidacy. Harriet Harman and Rosie Winterton are also expected to stand.
In the early stages of the contest, focus has been on plans for repair works to Parliament. Hoyle wants to see “all options on the table”. He believes a decant would see MPs out of the building for around 15-20 years, rather than the expected eight years that has currently been outlined. “That’s why I think you’ve got to have a proper building that you can move into in the meantime,” he argues.
“Part of that could be that we go back and look at Horse Guards Parade and possibly put a building up. That could be a temporary home while this is being done. But it would save money and it would save a lot of time. It’s not that I’m in favour of it, but I think that everybody should have all the options to look at.”
I already know the answer to my last question before I ask it, but I give it a good college try. The race to succeed John Bercow, who was supposed to have gone by now, has kicked into gear, I tell Hoyle. You’re a popular MP, well-established as deputy, and have an affinity with the backbenches. Surely, I conclude, you’re going to have a crack at the Speakership?
“When I watch athletics and you watch the race, they all get down to set off, you have a starting gun and you always get false starts. I think there’s been a few false starts so far,” Hoyle says, laughing.
“There is no vacancy. Of course, when the Speaker decides to go, he will go and if there is a race set up, yes, I may well enter that race. But I’ll certainly wait for the starting gun first.”