In the end, it was an anticlimax. When the news came on Tuesday that Michael Martin was to be, after all, the first Speaker forced out of his historic post in more than three centuries, the Westminster hothouse was hardly surprised. Martin’s position had begun to look untenable the previous week when he rounded on MPs over transparency, more so when Nick Clegg became the first party leader to call for him to go. But when Martin failed to step down on Monday, it appeared he would shamelessly seek to stay on. However, Tuesday’s febrile front-page coverage describing his “humiliation” proved that he was seen in the country, not just in parliament, as a roadblock to reform. His statement – announcing that he would stand down on 21 June – lasted little more than 30 seconds, before the normal business of the House resumed.
Outside the chamber, though, the starting gun was fired for his succession, with MPs lobbying for votes in the impending secret ballot, as in a party leadership contest. It is a contest with some unusually high-quality candidates, including Labour’s Frank Field (at the time of writing, the odds of his winning the job stand at 4-1, according to Ladbrokes) and, on the Tory side, Sir Alan Haselhurst (4-1) and Sir George Young (8-1).
All three command respect from across the House. Sir George, a High Tory baronet, gained the support of 241 MPs when he stood to succeed Betty Boothroyd as Speaker in 2000, and he remains a strong favourite. The aristocratic Old Etonian is thoughtful, amiable and intelligent, but may be seen as too “Establishment”.
Sir Alan has excelled as deputy speaker and many believe he would have been infinitely better than Martin. But the exposure of his £12,000 gardening bill may destroy his chances of taking up the post. Similarly, Liberal Democrat MPs say privately that their highest-profile candidate, Sir Menzies Campbell, is “finished” following the revelation that he refurbished his London home with £10,000 of taxpayers’ money.
The odds-on favourite, Frank Field, is certainly a maverick, and a complicatedly non-partisan figure. The Labour leadership is, however, unlikely to support as a potential speaker an MP who has repeatedly disparaged the Prime Minister.
Instead, a growing number of Labour MPs are backing an outsider, the Tory rebel John Bercow, as the next Speaker. The odds stand at 8-1. Harriet Harman, the Leader of the Commons, is believed to have a high regard for him, partly as the sole Tory supporter of her Equalities Bill, which – as I wrote last month – presents the Conservatives with an acute dilemma. Many feel that Bercow’s bold approach to his party could be applied to parliament, and badly needed it is, too.
In January 2002, as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Bercow wrote a provocative New Year letter to his Buckingham constituency party. Many voters, he said, saw the Tories as “racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-youth”. This observation marked the near-completion of his conversion from right-wing Conservative student and member of the anti-immigration Monday Club to ultramoderniser, years before David Cameron claimed the title of Tory “change” candidate.
Bercow’s journey was influenced by his partnership with Sally Illman, an egalitarian Labour sympathiser whom he married in 2002. Yet it did not begin there. Some Tory MPs blame Illman, or “that woman”, for his views, but his conversion was first made public on 10 February 2000, when he gave a 13-minute speech in favour of reducing the homosexual age of consent to 16. A month before his wedding in December 2002, Bercow resigned from the front bench over Iain Duncan Smith’s decision to oppose the rights of unmarried and homosexual couples to adopt. His alienation from the party intensified when, in 2007, the government asked him to review services for children and young people with special speech, language and communication needs. Since then, he has kept a relatively low profile, becoming as resented by Tory traditionalists as he is admired by progressives in other parties.
Indeed, senior Labour figures have long hoped that Bercow would defect, and cannot understand why he stays in a party from which he is so clearly ideologically estranged. Adding to the mystery, Bercow’s friends say he has no ambitions left in party politics.
For all his despair at the pomp and ceremony of the Palace of Westminster, Bercow remains a House of Commons man to the core. He is a long-time believer in reform, not just in the wake of the expenses scandal, from which he has emerged (so far) unscathed, but in terms of wider, fundamental change. Since his departure from front-line party politics he has focused partly on redressing the balance between the overmighty executive and the legislature, calling in 2005 for select committees to be strengthened by election.
One admirer on the left says Bercow is “a genuine liberal – as opposed to a pain-spray liberal”. But as well as being socially liberal, he believes, unlike Cameron, that “modernisation” concerns fundamental issues such as tax, redistribution and immigration. The son of a minicab driver, with no private wealth, Bercow is, to many of his colleagues, “not one of us”. Already there is a campaign to undermine him, led by Tory MPs who are keen to talk up the need for an “interim” speaker, possibly Ann Widdecombe. However, such a compromise would not produce the fresh start needed. These same Tories say that Bercow is too young and hasn’t been in the House long enough. Yet, at 46, he is four years older than his party’s candidate for prime minister, and became an MP four years earlier, in 1997.
Tory high command is looking for an “ABB” candidate: anyone but Bercow. Cameron, whose “modernisation” agenda he is said to consider superficial, is particularly opposed to Bercow becoming Speaker. Instead, Conservative MPs are roughly split between George Young and Alan Haselhurst. Yet Bercow should not be written off. Indeed, a distant relationship between the Speaker and the prime minister, as Cameron may soon become, is to be encouraged.
When he wrote his damning constituency letter in 2002, Bercow added that his party was “in worse shape than ever before in my lifetime or yours”. Today, the same could be said of the standing of parliament. Traditional Tory hostility to Bercow may in the end prevent him from becoming Speaker, but that he is the true change candidate is not in doubt.