Is Bercow running scared?

The Speaker should fight Farage, not look for an unelected seat

It's worth reading all of Iain Dale's interview with John Bercow in this month's Total Politics, but what caught my eye was the suggestion that the Speaker should be given a separate constituency and be elected by MPs alone.

In response to a question about the challenge he faces at the next election (from the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage), Bercow floated the idea that the Speaker should be given a tailor-made constituency, named St Stephen's, after the historic Commons chapel.

Farage declared that the plan demonstrated the "bumptiousness and arrogance" of Bercow, adding that he "should stand and face the music".

In response to which, it's only fair to note that Bercow did not support the idea. He said: "My attitude is that, as such a decision would affect me directly, it's not right for me to be either an advocate of it or resistant to it."

In any case, the idea of a largely unelected Speaker is not an attractive one and Bercow has little to fear from Farage. Sitting Speakers have always faced challenges from maverick candidates. Michael Martin survived a challenge from the Scottish National Party at the last election.

As for the rest of the interview, Bercow deserves credit for this robust defence of his wife's political independence:

One thing I do think is quite wrong and unfair is for somebody to say: "Oh well, it's improper for the Speaker's wife to be engaged in acts of politics." That's wrong. It may well add to the spice of life, it might well cause me some difficulties in terms of press coverage, but to suggest that it's somehow constitutionally improper is quite wrong. And the simple reason for that is that the obligation for impartiality applies to me. It does not apply to Sally. And deep down I ask you to consider this, and hope you might even agree. It's a deeply sexist view based on the idea that the wife is my chattel.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.