Unspeakerble

‘A Speaker with a strong political agenda is a dangerous creature under the Westminster model’

Westminster
John Bercow: Extraordinary trajectory, but what is driving him? (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Speakership of the House of Commons and its successive occupants are perhaps the personification of the Westminster parliamentary model. Yet the role has probably never had quite such a central role in our political future as John Bercow has now appropriated for himself during the country’s continuing struggles with Brexit.

Bercow’s own political trajectory has been extraordinary. He started as an ultra-Thatcherite student activist — indeed, way beyond that, when he dabbled with the pro-repatriation, Ian Smith’s Rhodesia-supporting Monday Club. Bercow was the final chairman, in 1986-87, of the Federation of Conservative Students during its politically-posturing, testosterone-fuelled undoing. I first met him in the early 1990s — confessions of my own inglorious student days — when he ran training courses, alongside now fellow MP Julian Lewis, for Conservative students extolling, shall we say, the darker side of political campaigning. Bercow, I seem to remember, was particularly proud of his ability to discombobulate his political opponents with his aggressive interjections. Lewis remains a key supporter of the Speaker even though they must now agree politically on very little.

Bercow had moved far by the time he was elected Speaker in 2009; if he had not he would never have won the election, as he relied heavily on Labour support to win. Indeed, in the couple of years running up to his election there was much speculation that he might even defect to Labour. With Brexit’s parliamentary shenanigans, Bercow has the opportunity now to make matters extremely difficult not just for Theresa May but for the whole process of leaving the European Union, even conceivably derailing it.

The trouble with the Westminster parliamentary model is that all is set by precedent — but that precedent only applies until it changes. In the post-1945 era it had been seen as convention that the Speakership alternated between the two main parties, until, that is, formerly-Labour MP Michael Martin succeeded formerly-Labour Betty Boothroyd. (Speakers give up their party allegiance on being elected.) It was also thought that the Speaker would always be drawn from the largest parliamentary party, until the election of Boothroyd in 1992 and later Bercow.

Since 1844 parliamentary practice has been set down in the successive editions of Erskine May, but Speakers can change that practice as Bercow proved last month when he allowed the House to vote on, and subsequently pass, Dominic Grieve’s amendment to a government business motion. The most powerful and under-recognised tool governments use to get their legislative programme through parliament is that, through the whips, they control the parliamentary timetable. The passage of legislation through parliament is enabled via the Commons approving programme motions, which timetable the various stages of a Bill’s passage through the House. If a government fails to get its business motion passed there is little prospect of that piece of legislation entering the statute book, as its opponents can repeatedly delay its passage. Perhaps the best recent example of this was the coalition government abandoning Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s cherished plans for Lords reform not because the Bill was voted down in the Commons but because its programme motion was defeated.

It has always been possible to put down amendments to business motions, but until Bercow’s ruling it was convention that amendments on supplementary business motions would not be called, as in the debate on the meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement where the government wished to change its original programme motion after pulling the vote in December. The Speaker’s ruling changed all that. One of the peculiarities of the Westminster model is that the Speaker’s decision cannot be challenged by MPs and the proceedings of parliament itself cannot be challenged in the courts. What is more, during the lifetime of a parliament there is no formal means of putting down a motion of no-confidence in the Speaker — although the case of Speaker Martin showed that it is in practice possible to force a Speaker out as he was over his handling of the MPs’ expenses scandal.

What the Speaker rules thus automatically becomes unchallengeable parliamentary practice. A change in the rules regarding supplementary business motions may seem absurdly arcane but, as Bercow has strongly hinted, there are likely to be many more departures from precedent as the Brexit process reaches its climax, or indeed otherwise, this month and next. A Speaker with a strong political agenda is a dangerous creature under the Westminster model, as the way parliament does its business is likely to change irrevocably.

What is motivating Bercow? It is as likely to be a simple dislike of much of his former party as it is a passionate opposition to Brexit. On the very last day of the 2010-15 parliament, Michael Gove as Tory Chief Whip and William Hague as Leader of the House tried to change the rules for the reelection of the Speaker after the general election. At the start of every parliament, if there is an incumbent Speaker, a motion to reelect him or her is proposed. If MPs object there is a division in which members vote whether or not to renew the incumbent’s mandate. Such divisions are rare as, or so the thinking goes, few MPs want to be in the bad books of the Speaker. Hague proposed that in future the reelection of the Speaker, if there were calls for a vote, would be by secret ballot, thus making it much more likely that Bercow would be deposed. These plans were scuppered when 23 Tories, alongside two UKIP defectors, voted with the opposition against them. The Conservative rebels were largely arch-Eurosceptics including Peter Bone, Christopher Chope, David Davis, Zac Goldsmith, Bernard Jenkin and Jacob Rees-Mogg. It was Rees-Mogg who gave the speech at the start of the 2015 parliament proposing the re-election of Bercow, praising the fact that the Speaker was the back-bencher’s champion.

Back in 2015, the way that Bercow could annoy the Conservative leadership was to give greater leeway to its Eurosceptic rebels; today it is to side with the “never Leavers”. The Westminster model is rather too open to abuse by the whim of one irascible man.