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The Bercow Coup

By Philip Cowley

The news that the Government is to table a last minute amendment to the procedure for the re-election of the Speaker has enlivened the dog days of the parliament. The current procedure for the defenestration of an incumbent Speaker requires MPs to do so publicly; the proposed change will introduce a secret ballot.  There are good summaries of the issue from the BBC (here) and the Commons library (here).

When discussing today’s vote, it is worth distinguishing between the principle (should there be a secret ballot or not?), the method (why is it being done now, and in this way?), and the motivation (why do it?). Much of the discussion thus far has tended to mix these three up, depending on the outcome a particular individual desires (which tends to depend on whether they like the Speaker, John Bercow, or not).

For some, the principle is clear: the way MPs vote should be made public, so they can be accountable to their constituents. And indeed, most votes are public, and are recorded. The problem with this argument is that plenty of similar votes are already secret – including, crucially, any vote to select a new Speaker.  John Bercow was first elected by a secret ballot. The last Speaker to be elected by an open, recorded, vote, was Michael Martin – who many saw as the perfect reason to introduce a secret ballot.  Moreover, other positions, such as the chairs of select committees, are now also voted for by MPs using a secret ballot. So whilst it is possible to oppose a secret ballot for the re-election of the Speaker on the basis that MPs’ votes should be public, it is a curious position to take unless one also wants these other votes to be public. It is, rather, probably easier to argue that, given the way these other votes are now carried out, it is therefore now difficult to object to the in principle to the re-election of Speaker being by secret ballot.

As to method, however, things are different. This is a last minute motion, sprung on the Speaker and the House, in the hope that it will pass while Labour MPs (many of whom back Bercow) are away from Westminster.  It is possible both to admire it as a piece of political and parliamentary manoeuvring and to think it stinks as a way to make such an important change.

And then there is the motivation. This is (fairly transparently) being done in the belief that it will make John Bercow’s re-election as Speaker less likely.  News of the amendment broke last night, whilst I was speaking at the launch of The Coalition Effect, a series of essays on different aspects of politics over the last five years.  My chapter in that volume is on Parliament and it contains a section on John Bercow, and his impact on the institution, which helps explain why some want him out, and others want him to stay. Here is what it says:

Some of his reforming zeal manifested itself internally, such as his reform for a parliamentary crèche (an idea long advocated, but previously going nowhere), and his support for ParliOut (a new LGBT network at Westminster).  Neither particularly endeared him to some of the more traditional wing of his former party, nor did his decision not to wear the Speaker’s traditional wig and robes.  He was also a believer in working as what he termed ‘an ambassador for Parliament’, engaging with the world outside of Westminster and was an enthusiastic advocate of parliament’s outreach programme, overseeing a huge expansion of its work.  In late-2013, he announced the establishment of a commission on digital democracy, to investigate how the parliament could ‘embrace the opportunities afforded by the digital world’.

In the chamber he intervened regularly, and at length, during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs); he was also prepared to allow the sessions to run over the 30 minutes formally allocated, adding on ‘injury time’ for interruptions. He behaved, said one journalist, ‘like a Victorian headteacher overseeing a noisy assembly’. He argued repeatedly and vociferously that the behaviour seen at PMQs lowered public respect for the Commons, and would refer to the ‘bucket loads’ of letters he received on the subject from members of the public. The fact that he continued to make such interventions throughout the Parliament, however, went to show how ineffectual the interruptions were. Although the number of questions dealt with at PMQs increased, behaviour during the session at the end of the parliament was not much better than it had been at the beginning.  More significant was his granting of Urgent Questions (previously known as Private Notice Questions), which hauled ministers to the House to deal with urgent developments. He granted 73 in the first (long) session, 38 in the second, and 35 in the third.  Michael Martin, by contrast, had granted two in the last twelve months of his Speakership.  Many Ministers, perhaps understandably, did not approve, but the revival of UQs undoubtedly made the Commons a more significant focus of debate and scrutiny.  Bercow himself saw these as the greatest impact made by his Speakership.

His critics, of whom there were a growing band by the end of the parliament, alleged two things. The first – heard almost exclusively from Conservative MPs – was that Speaker Bercow demonstrated anti-government bias. Always difficult to quantify or prove (not something many of his critics ever attempted), it was this, ironically, that ensured that he did at least have some supporters on the Conservative benches: many of the more rebellious Conservative MPs saw in the Speaker a champion of their rights, and of Parliament’s, against the executive. The second criticism was one of pomposity and rudeness.  His critics saw, in his constant interventions at PMQs, not an attempt to raise the importance and standing of Parliament, but an attempt to raise the importance and standing of John Bercow.  It was often not the fact that he intervened, but how he did it and what he said.  At times, it was almost as if he was going out of his way to be rude, especially to Conservative MPs, with whom he had several private and public fallings-out. There were also stories of his behaviour behind the scenes, where it was said he could be short-tempered with staff and some Members. The (early) retirement in 2014 of the Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir Robert Rogers, became mired in allegations of Bercow’s behaviour and there followed a row over the appointment of Rogers’ successor, during which the Speaker was forced to retreat.  By the end of the parliament, the contempt that some MPs, predominantly Conservatives, had for the Speaker was very public, and his position was less certain than it had been in 2010. For the Commons, however, the Bercow effect had been a positive one.

But as this makes clear, whilst he has his opponents, he has his supporters too. These include some Conservative MPs – including some who did not vote for him initially.  We should therefore not assume that he will be deposed as Speaker after the next election, even if today’s motion is passed.  A secret ballot will make life harder for an incumbent Speaker, but he could still survive, depending on the party composition after May.

Published inBritish PoliticsGeneral Election 2015Politics

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