Who else will stand to be the next Commons Speaker?
In this week’s The House magazine, Dame Eleanor Laing becomes the first MP to declare their intention to stand to be Speaker when John Bercow steps down. Though there is currently no vacancy, who else might be considering a go at the top job? Sebastian Whale reports
“I will try to become Speaker when he finally decides to go,” Dame Eleanor Laing tells me this week. “I am fortunate to have had five years’ experience in the Speaker’s chair. There is a lot to be done to take our democratic system onto the next stage.”
Laing, one of three deputy speakers, has fired the starting gun on the race to succeed John Bercow. In an interview with The House, she becomes the first MP to announce their intention to run.
Speaker Bercow has reportedly told friends he will stand down this summer, though he has yet to publicly declare when he intends to step aside. The Buckingham MP had pledged to resign in 2018 after nine years but his plans changed after the 2017 election. Amid speculation about his future last autumn, his spokeswoman said: “The Speaker was elected by the House in 2017 for the course of the Parliament. In the event he has anything to say on his future plans, he will make an announcement to the House first.”
So, who else do we expect to stand in the race for the Speakership? Intriguingly, Laing predicts a wide field of candidates among whom will be her fellow deputy speakers, Lindsay Hoyle and Dame Rosie Winterton.
Among the other names often mentioned in the debate is Harriet Harman. The Labour grandee has been asked by MPs whether she plans to put her name forward. Speaking to me last year, Harman said: “People have said it to me. But there isn’t a vacancy. And so, I would consider it at the time.”
Harman’s greatest obstacle comes in winning over enough Tory MPs. While she has her detractors on the government benches, she also has her fair share of admirers. When I asked Nicky Morgan last year if Harman would be a good fit for Speaker, she said: “All I would say is in the same way that politics was ready for a second female prime minister, I think that the House of Commons is probably ready for a second female Speaker.”
Others expected to be interested in running are Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda who possesses a healthy knowledge of Commons procedure. Hoyle, the most senior of the three deputy speakers, is a popular figure in Westminster. Winterton, too, is a respected politician and a former chief whip – so she knows how to get votes across the line. What’s clear is Jeremy Corbyn’s party could be well represented at a future election.
What about on the Conservative benches? Charles Walker, as chair of the Procedure Committee, has a firm grasp of the work of the Commons (as yet, we do not know of his intentions). Could Jacob Rees-Mogg fancy a go? This was his response to my colleague, Emilio Casalicchio, who asked him in 2016 if he was interested. “I am quite well versed in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, but I don’t think I am quite going to be made Pope. I would quite like to be, but I don’t think my chances are very great. I love what I am doing. The Speaker has to be completely independent and a-political, and I would probably find that very difficult,” he said.
Laing was first elected in 1997 as Conservative MP for Epping Forest. She has served as deputy speaker since 2013 and gained a reputation for being an authoritative voice. In her interview with us, she sets out the changes she wants to see in the Commons, which centre around making the Chamber more reflective of the society it seeks to represent.
Laing has not done her chances any harm with her performances in the Chair. Her words in these pages on proxy voting, reform of the PMB system and progressive calls to make parliament representative will be welcomed in various quarters of the Commons – though perhaps not all.
However, Laing is not as well known as some of the other potential candidates. One Labour MP tells me she is seen, perhaps unfairly, as a “stern” character, and advises a behind-the-scenes charm offensive to show the newer intake she is approachable. Laing is likely to get a healthy amount of support from her own side which will serve her well in seeking to get over the line.
By being first out the traps, Laing might well gain an early advantage. One thing is for certain, whether intended or not, the pressure has been upped on the Speaker to provide clarity over his future.