05 September 2019
The Role of Speaker
Power and partisanship.
By Lynda Goetz
‘A week is a long time in politics’, Harold Wilson is reputed to have said. Well, it is now over a month since Shaw Sheet was online and a month appears to be an eternity in politics! At the moment an hour appears to be a pretty long time too. Since we came ‘off air’ at the end of July, so much has happened and since Parliament reconvened at the beginning of this week, events appear to have speeded up even more. Whether or not you are a Boris fan and whether or not you voted for Leave, there is little doubt that there has been a change of tempo since Mr Johnson became the PM at the end of July. For many this has been a welcome change from the endless limbo we had to endure for the three years of Theresa May’s premiership. For others, however, his energy and desire to move on from no-man’s land have been perceived as a threat to those who had hoped somehow to remain in the EU and certainly to those opposed to a no-deal exit. There are many in parliament in this category, including one whose role should lift him above the political manoeuvring and general shenanigans, but who instead seems to revel in it. Take a bow, House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow.
John Bercow, Speaker of the House, is the MP for Buckingham and formerly a member of the Conservative Party. By tradition the speaker is strictly non-partisan and renounces all affiliation with their former party once they take office. (Bercow had in fact increasingly been moving away from the Conservative party before his election and had indeed been rumoured to be about to join the Labour party for which he had already produced a report on SLCN – speech language and communication needs – within education). The role of Speaker is to preside over debates, determining who may speak, and maintain order during debates. They are not themselves entitled to take part in debates, nor to vote*. Mr Bercow does not seem to consider that all these rules apply to him, particularly when it comes to partisanship.
For a brief history of the role of Speaker, Wikipedia offers a readable and relatively comprehensive digest. Basically, the role is almost as old as Parliament itself and can be traced back to Peter de Montfort in the mid-13th C; although his title was not ‘speaker, but ‘parlour’ (from the French) or ‘prolocutor’ (from the Latin). The continuous history of the Speaker appears to date from the mid-14thC. It was not, however, until the 17thC that the Speaker began to be seen as more the agent of the House of Commons than of the Crown*. The idea of an apolitical and impartial Speaker dates back effectively to the mid-19thC.
Until 1992, the Speaker wore court dress and a full-bottomed wig, but the first female Speaker, Betty Boothroyd declined to wear the wig, as did her successor, Michael Martin, who also simplified the dress. John Bercow has dispensed with it altogether, retaining only the plain black gown which he wears over a lounge suit when presiding over the chamber. The extensive powers of the Speaker have certainly not been lost on the current incumbent. In reference to his decision to stand for the first time in 2009, Bercow said: “I wanted it because I felt that there was a task to be undertaken and that’s about strengthening backbench involvement and opportunity in parliament, and helping parliament get off its knees and recognise that it isn’t just there as a rubber-stamping operation for the government of the day, and as necessary and appropriate to contradict and expose the government of the day”. As the highest authority in the House of Commons, the Speaker not only has the final say in how business is conducted, but also gets to choose which tabled amendments are selected for votes. Speaker Bercow has certainly used his office to support his stated position as a Remain voter in the 2016 referendum, much to the frustration and annoyance of Brexiteers.
In the same month (February 2017) as he revealed his Brexit stance, Speaker Bercow also said in the House that he would be ‘strongly opposed’ to President Trump addressing the Houses of Parliament during his planned state visit to the UK. Although he subsequently apologised for his remarks on that occasion, Bercow has continued to court controversy and increasingly seems to relish a very partisan role in the Brexit debate. Since the beginning of this year his allegiance to the Remain camp has undoubtedly caused problems both to Mrs May’s government and now to that of Boris Johnson.
In January 2019, by allowing a vote on an amendment to a government business motion, Bercow broke with convention and confirmed his initial campaigning views on the job of speaker (see above). The Grieve amendment (tabled by Dominic Grieve MP) required the Prime Minister to table a motion within three days on proposed alternative plans for Brexit if Parliament rejected her deal. Two months later the speaker caused more controversy by stating that he would not allow the Government to bring the Withdrawal Agreement back for a third vote, citing a convention dating back to 1604. This led directly to Mrs May seeking an extension to Article 50, resulting in the UK having to participate in the European elections.
This political manoeuvring in support of those who want to thwart Brexit would appear to go thoroughly against the role of Speaker as it has existed for at least the last 150 years. Bercow had originally (to friends at least, although not publicly) expressed an intention to retire from the position in 2018 owing to allegations of bullying and then was expected to go in June of this year. However, rumours that the government, in retaliation for his political stance, would withhold the usual elevation to the House of Lords, as well as the evident enjoyment he takes from the power he enjoys in assisting those of his own Remain persuasion to thwart government plans, have meant that he has quite firmly insisted he will stay in post until the next general election, which he is entitled to do.
His latest assistance to the Opposition in ensuring that the motion for Parliament to take control of business was tabled yesterday has meant that this long-standing speaker has been a real thorn in the side of Government. Should this be his constitutional role? James Duddridge, a conservative MP who led an unsuccessful effort to unseat him in 2017, is in no doubt; “The Speaker has a political agenda, which is wholly inappropriate. Labour find him convenient, because he’s a more effective opposition than their own leader. Who’s made more hits on the Government – Speaker Bercow…. or Jeremy Corbyn?” Evidently it is not only the Labour party who find him convenient; Philip Hammond, Dominic Grieve and Oliver Letwin (with whom he was reputedly in contact over the holidays), rebel Remainers, who on Tuesday had the conservative party whip withdrawn, also find him convenient. Ian Duncan Smith is more generous. In an article in The Telegraph on 29th August, he commented that, “I believe there is much that this Speaker has done to improve backbench MPs’ opportunities to hold the Government to account and to improve the rights of MPs as scrutineers of legislation. It is a record which will stand the test of time. However, in the past few months, I have become concerned that his own views on the subject of Brexit have led to strong and angry attacks on both the Government and individual MPs … At this time of all times, we need impartial stewardship in the midst of all this faux outrage”.
To the despair of most of the general public, it doesn’t look as if the political manoeuvrings and poker playing is going to be over any time soon. Power is a heady brew and those who have partaken of it are not generally inclined to want to slip away quietly to cultivate their gardens. Opinion in both Parliament and the country is divided, but those in positions of power would do well to consider that a referendum was held and a majority voted to leave. The question did not include information on how we should leave and a deal was never mentioned. The current and continuing uncertainty is bad for everyone. The Speaker is doing his office a major disservice by using his power to aid those opposed to leaving – however that exit is achieved.
*This was the occasion when Charles 1 was looking for five members of parliament to arrest for high treason. Speaker, William Lenthall, when asked by the king if he knew of their whereabouts, famously replied “ May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”
*Except in the case of a casting vote in the event of a tie between the Ayes and the Noes, when the vote is cast in accordance with a constitutional convention known as Speaker Denison’s Rule. Speaker Bercow issued a casting vote in accordance with this rule on 3rd April of this year. Since 1801 there have apparently been only 50 instances of tied divisions.