If you haven’t yet heard, the Government’s hastily introduced motion to change the way the Speaker is re-elected was defeated in the Commons by 228 votes to 202 after a debate of around an hour.It was quite an extraordinary debate to watch as one watched William Hague floundering to explain why the Government had suddenly decided that this matter had to be discussed at short notice while a range of MPs from all parties stood up to query the process. When Hague looks back on his Parliamentary career, he may be tempted to pretend that it finished on Wednesday 25th March rather than today, as it really wasn’t a good note to leave on.
The most impressive speech, however, was one that was delivered with typical Parliamentary bombast or bluster and showed that great oratory can be delivered quietly to devastating effect. Charles Walker, chair of the Commons’ procedure committee, whose recommendations Hague was ostensibly proposing to the House, showed just what skullduggery had been played out behind the scenes, with people who knew what they were about to do telling him nothing of the way they were about to use him:
It does suggest that some people in Parliament have been watching too much House of Cards and decided playing silly games is more important than getting on with governing. This is likely the last Parliamentary day of Michael Gove as Chief Whip too, after managing to end the Parliamentary session by getting the Government defeated on a vote they didn’t need to force while angering many of the more influential backbenchers with the manner in which they attempted it.
What did this mean for the Liberal Democrats? Well, Tom Brake sat alongside Hague throughout the debate playing the loyal deputy (and was mentioned as one of Walker’s ‘clever men’) but the only Lib Dem MPs to speak in the debate – Duncan Hames and David Heath – were both clearly going to vote against, and another MP told me privately that the announcement of this vote came as a surprise to them, but they were allowed a free vote, as MPs usually are on procedural matters of the House. How individuals voted we’ll have to wait and see for a few hours until the results of the vote are published on Hansard.
However, one thought did occur to me – was allowing this motion to be brought today the price exacted by the Tories for allowing the ‘Yellow Budget‘ to be presented in the House last week? There were some suggestions floating around earlier that Bercow’s complaints about using the House for a purely party political announcement had angered the party leadership enough to make them want to get rid of him. Sadly, it’s all too plausible that both party leaderships would be so enamoured of their respective clever wheezes that they neglected to think how they would look to their own backbenchers, let alone the public, and so we got the mess we had today. It’s a fitting capstone to stick on the end of this Parliament.
Yes, John Bercow and I have studied in the same department.
Like the last day of school, the last day of a Parliament is usually quite a relaxed place with plenty of time given over for retiring members to give valedictory speeches, while the last bits of business are cleared up. Given that we now have a fixed term Parliament and everyone has known for a long time when it would be prorogued, there isn’t even much of a rush to get legislation through as the Prime Minister heads to the Palace.
Which is what makes last night’s news that MPs would suddenly be asked to vote on a change to the procedures for re-electing a Speaker all the more odd. It’s quite clear that this is a surprise move and has been brought in an attempt to catch the Opposition on the hop and slip through a change without any proper consultation, discussion or debate. I can’t imagine that William Hague imagined he would end his Parliamentary career in this way, but this will be the last thing he gets to do as Leader of the House before heading into retirement.
The change would come into effect in a new Parliament, when the question of re-electing a sitting Speaker has traditionally been a simple one of asking if there are any objections and then a regular division of the House. This would replace that procedure with a secret ballot. Now, there may be arguments in favour of that change though we’re unlikely to hear them explored and scrutinised in depth during the one hour allocated for debate, but I can’t help but notice that it gives an incoming Government the power to remove a potentially troublesome Speaker with none of the ministers being seen to be voting in public for it. We know that David Cameron and other members of this Government don’t like the way the Speaker feels they should be regularly summoned before the Commons to face Urgent Questions, and now if Cameron is still Prime Minister after the election he has a way to remove John Bercow without having to cast a public vote to do so.
So, it’s a grubby move being brought in in a pretty underhand way, which is the sort of thing we’d expect from the Tories, who obviously haven’t exercised their pantomime villain muscles enough during this Parliament and felt the need to remind people at the end of it of how nasty they could be. What I don’t understand is why the Liberal Democrats are allowing this to happen – all the stories I’ve seen suggest this is a Government move with support from both parties, and no one from the Liberal Democrats has as yet popped up to distance the party from this move. Over the last few years, there have been several things the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party have voted for that you wouldn’t expect them to, so this isn’t a first but it doesn’t come with the usual excuses as to what they’re doing it. No one’s yet been wheeled out to talk about concessions achieved elsewhere in the Bill, how this is part of the Coalition Agreement if you squint hard enough or how it’s a necessary part of having a stronger economy and a fairer society. Instead, the Parliamentary Party appears to have meekly agreed to this stitch up and is hoping their acquiescence won’t be noticed.
What I can’t understand is why – what gain is there from dropping this poison pill right at the end of a Parliament? The anti-Bercow movement appears to consist solely of Tory MPs and ministers who’ve been out to get him since he became Speaker in 2009, and I’ve never heard any significant grumbling about him from Liberal Democrats. A party that believes in accountability and democracy shouldn’t be supporting underhand moves to change the rules without any notice, and a party that might be looking for friends across the House of Commons after the election shouldn’t be angering a large chunk of it right now.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about Reluctant Europeans?, David Sanders’ inaugural Regius Professorship lecture at the University of Essex. The lecture, and the panel discussion chaired by John Bercow that followed it, are now available online for you to watch. I think a lot of you will find both parts of it interesting.
The lecture is about an hour long and it’s a very good look at how British people think about European issues. It uses some quite recent academic research but isn’t aimed at a purely academic audience and Professor Sanders is a very good lecturer, so everyone should be able to understand the points he’s making.
The discussion that follows features Sanders, John Bercow (a graduate of the Department of Government at Essex), Professor Dame Helen Wallace, Baroness Shirley Williams and Professor Anthony King. It’s very wide-ranging around the points Sanders raised and has some interesting questions and comments from the audience.
Professor David Sanders’ Regius Professorship Lecture 2014 – Part 1: Lecture from University of Essex on Vimeo.
Professor David Sanders’ Regius Professorship Lecture 2014 – Part 2: Panel Discussion and Audience Q&A from University of Essex on Vimeo.
One of those little things that’s crept into our internet usage over the last few years is the customer satisfaction query. There’s probably another name for it, but what I’m referring to is the little question you often get asked when you’ve queried an FAQ, a support database or help system. Did this answer your query? they’ll ask at the end of your reading, checking to see if they’ve understood what you were asking and have provided the answers you require.
Why I’m thinking about this is because I was watching David Cameron’s appearance in the House of Commons yesterday. And what I was thinking is ‘how much would it change the way Parliament works if the Speaker could ask that to MPs when they’ve asked questions?’ Of course, part of that would be the fun of seeing John Bercow regularly popping up to ask ‘did that answer the Honourable Member’s question? Yes/No/Partially’ but more fundamentally, it would be interesting if an MP could have some reaction, however minimal, to the non-answer that’s been prevalent in the Commons for years. Just a chance to say ‘I’m sorry, but that wasn’t even an attempt an answer’ might make people wonder just what they’re supposed to be doing there other than braying like idiots.