As the country gears up for another election, some politicians at Westminster have already started appearing at hustings, explaining to their audiences why they’re the best man or woman for the job.
No, Boris Johnson has not yet found a way round the roadblock created by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act that would allow him to seek a new mandate and break the Brexit deadlock. Instead eight wannabee Speakers of the Commons have started pressing the flesh and kissing babies in the corridors of power as they seek to replace John Bercow at the beginning of next month.
As an aside, there’s a potential bump in the road between now and the moment when the new Speaker is dragged by their supporters (ostensibly reluctantly) to the chair for the first time. If the prime minister is dragged (unambiguously reluctantly) to ask the EU for an extension to our nation’s membership of the European Union, the opposition parties may well agree on an early general election immediately afterwards, thereby moving the date of the Speaker’s election to the first sitting day after polling day. In those circumstances, the new Speaker would become the first holder of that office to have been elected by a new parliament since Betty Boothroyd in 1992. And the various candidates for that office will be unable to canvass for votes until parliament has resumed.
As things currently stand, the planned date for electing Bercow’s successor is Monday, November 4. There will be no other business on that day. Bercow will be an ex-MP by then and will therefore not be present. The Father of the House, Ken Clarke will preside – assuming, of course, that he hasn’t been appointed prime minister by then. Each of the candidates will be invited to make a pitch to their assembled colleagues and then the House will adjourn to allow the casting and counting of votes (a secret ballot, following changes to the rules in the noughties). Eventually, as with the Papal Conclave, a winner will emerge after a series of ballots.
Today the eight declared candidates were strutting their stuff to an audience of lobby journalists at Westminster. This is an odd thing to do, since MPs are the only people who have a vote and a say. Undoubtedly the aim is to garner enough positive reviews that will persuade undecided members of the electorate.
Still, there will be those who detect an unwelcome diminution of the Commons’ prized independence by seeking to enrol journalists’ efforts in the campaign. The wonderful thing about the election of a Speaker – as with the Pope – is that no one gets a say except MPs. They use their own judgment, they cast a secret ballot, no one can or should hold them to account for their choice. Even before secret ballots, the Commons enjoyed cocking a snook at public – and especially media – opinion by electing Michael Martin as Boothroyd’s replacement in 2000, much to the annoyance of the Fourth Estate, who never forgave them or Martin.
Another innovation in this election is the manifesto. Previous campaigns have included personal manifestos – Bercow famously promised that “in any event” he would serve until 2018 at the latest – but they were usually written in letter form to be sent to voting colleagues. This time round, Chris Bryant, the Rhondda MP and parliamentary historian, has issued a neat, extensive and professionally designed piece of campaign literature which he obligingly distributed to the hacks attending today’s event. His promises include long-demanded and long-delayed reforms such as speakers’ lists, so that MPs can be sure of when they’ll be called to speak, and seeking a happy medium between Bercow’s enthusiasm for granting Urgent Questions (when ministers are summoned at short notice to make a statement to the House at the request of an individual MP) and Martin’s reluctance to grant more than three a year.
All the candidates’ responses to various questions have been broadcast on Twitter: most of them support allowing MPs to breast feed in the chamber, Henry Bellingham would bring back the full robes and wig that Speakers before Boothroyd traditionally wore, and Rosie Winterton wants to go back to the days when clapping was banned in the chamber (she’ll get a round of applause from most MPs for that suggestion).
But as far as I can tell, none of the candidates has dared to address a point that is rather more pertinent to modern politics than breast feeding, clapping or wigs. When John Bercow threw impartiality to the wind and established himself as a partisan critic of Donald Trump and a key ally in the fight against Brexit, when he was accused of mistreating his staff and thereby contributing to the appalling culture of intimidation and bullying in the Palace of Westminster, his critics had no recourse.
There remains no obvious way of removing a Speaker who has signally failed to uphold the traditions and values of the office. The only way to remove a Speaker at present is to wait for a general election and hope either that he (or she) fails to win re-election by their constituents, or fails to win re-election to the post of Speaker after the Commons resumes. No sitting Speaker has, at least in modern times, suffered this humiliation (I bet Chris Bryant can tell me the last time it happened).
In the middle of a four- or five-year parliament such remedies are without value. Instead of promising reforms that are either popular or are so cautious as to not provoke any particular view one way or the other, the candidates for Speaker should agree on a central, radical reform: if ever the House – or even a large proportion of it – loses confidence in the Speaker, there will be a robust, democratic process which would allow a new election to take place with or without the current incumbent.
MPs themselves are subject to recall or deselection in various circumstances; it seems odd, not to say undemocratic, that the Speaker somehow manages to escape the accountability that his colleagues accept as a fact of life.