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26 March 2015updated 25 Jul 2021 5:49am

Plot foiled to unseat the Speaker – here’s how John Bercow transformed parliament for the better

Tory and Lib Dem MPs lost an attempt to vote through a change to Speaker election rules that would have been used to unseat Bercow.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The government has lost a vote on changing Speaker election rules. John Bercow has been saved.

A change was tabled to parliamentary procedures to make it easier to unseat the Speaker of the House of Commons. On the last day of parliament before the short campaign begins, Tory and Lib Dem MPs moved for a secret ballot to be used to decide the future of John Bercow. This has been dubbed the “pay-back plot”.

The election of the Speaker takes place at the beginning of every parliament, traditionally with the Father of the House taking the chair. The sitting Speaker can usually expect to be nodded through.

But some MPs, particularly Conservatives, have been so riled by what they see as Bercow’s favouritism, self-regard and departure from tradition, would like to see Bercow unseated.

Although Bercow is a divisive figure who has made controversial changes, he is an unashamed moderniser who has transformed parliament for the better. Here’s what he has done in his time:

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Refusing to wear traditional robes

When Bercow took on the role, he turned up in a suit, tie and a gown, instead of the old-fashioned court outfit donned by his predecessor. He also said he would not claim a second home allowance, breaking again from his predecessor. The Speaker has quarters in parliament.

Opening up Commons jobs to outsiders

It was a controversial move, but anything that pricks the insular Westminster bubble should be seen as a step in the right direction. Bercow used the retirement of the clerk of the Commons as an opportunity to restructure Commons administration. For the first time in memory, the job of clerk was opened up to outsiders; Bercow hired a firm of headhunters to identify candidates for the job.

Making ministers answer burning questions

It’s a bit technical, but Bercow has resurrected the system of granting Urgent Questions. These are a way for any MP to petition the Speaker to demand that a department delivers one of its ministers to parliament to answer on an urgent matter that may have suddenly or unexpectedly occurred. Bercow had granted 177 of these by June 2014, after five years in office, compared to the two granted in the previous speaker’s last year of office (2008-9).

Allowing an extra amendment to the 2013 Queen’s Speech

This is a change that the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy has pointed out, remarking that it “may be the most important ruling by a Speaker for decades”, and calling Bercow “less a constitutional monarch than a Commons Napoleon.” In May 2013, Bercow granted a third amendment to the Queen’s Speech, when prior to that, only two were ever allowed. It’s significant because it opens up the opportunity for a greater number of viewpoints to be expressed in the House.

Helping staff report bullying and harrassment

He established a parliament helpline following a run of stories in the press about bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff. Its main purpose is to offer welfare support and confidential advice to MPs’ staffers.

Setting up a parliament creche

In an unprecedented move that many MPs, male and female, continue to praise, Bercow set up a nursery in parliament, which has the capacity for 40 children of MPs, peers and other parliamentary staff.

Improving women and minority representation

The Speaker has made some moves to improve women and minority representation in the Commons by creating four “workplace equality networks”. These are LGBT, disability, gender and race, ethnicity and cultural heritage.

Boosting outreach

The Speaker has been personally involved in parliament’s outreach work, going on over a hundred external outreach events across the country since being elected. He also does a lot for making parliament accessible, for example, recently inviting Newsround press-packers to watch and report on PMQs, and playing a tennis match with some visiting children in Westminster.

Increasing the number of visiting pupils and students

A new education centre will allow the number of visitors to parliament for educational reasons to more than double from 45,000 to 95,000. It is primarily for children and students. It will welcome its first groups this summer.

Bercow once said, “just because I’m a little chap it doesn’t mean I haven’t got a big ambition”. He was elected to the Speaker’s office on a pledge to reform, and he has done so.

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