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3 October 2019

“It’s time to do things a bit differently”: could Eleanor Laing be the next speaker?

Ailbhe Rea meets the Conservative deputy speaker to discuss the sisterhood, her run for Speaker and the difficulties in giving up impartiality. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Interviewing Dame Eleanor Laing is similar, I imagine, to having tea with the Queen. It isn’t just the hair (perfectly coiffed), or the attire (a cobalt blue suit and pearls), or the way she perches on her plush green armchair and offers me tea. It’s her scrupulous use of subtext, her unwaveringly polite, diplomatic responses to my questions, accompanied by a twinkle in her eye and the understanding that I know what, or who, she really means.

We meet in her parliamentary office to discuss her candidacy to replace John Bercow as Speaker of the House of Commons. Despite serving as one of the three deputy speakers since 2013, Laing, the Conservative MP for Epping Forest since 1997, is not widely considered a front-runner for the role: the senior deputy speaker, Labour’s Lindsay Hoyle, is the favourite, while the other most-mentioned name is Harriet Harman, the Mother of the House and former acting leader of the Labour Party.

Laing admits it is “difficult” running against Hoyle, “because we’re friends. We’ve worked very well together for many years”.  She doesn’t mention Harman or the other contenders by name, but they loom large over our conversation. The first time Laing gives me her knowing look is when we are discussing the challenge of impartiality as speaker or deputy speaker.

“It’s actually not that difficult to be impartial when you’re sitting in the chair,” she says in her Scottish lilt. “That’s just a matter of decency and common sense, that you give equal time to both sides of the House, that you’re fair to the minority parties as well as the main opposition party, and give a balance of senior MPs and junior MPs. It’s not desperately difficult to do that.”  

She pauses and looks me straight in the eye. “What is difficult is keeping your mouth shut about things that you care about,” she says gravely, “if to speak about them would undermine your impartiality as deputy speaker or speaker. That is jolly difficult. And I know because I’ve done it for six years.”

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“I’m not sure that everyone who has thrown their hat in the ring in the contest to be speaker really appreciates what they would be giving up.” She gives me a nod to make quite sure I understand her meaning.

“I have proven impartiality. Only two of us have proven impartiality. Other people all say that they will be impartial but they haven’t proved it.” That is the first tenet of her pitch.

“Secondly,” she adds, “I consider that it’s time to do things a bit differently.

“I believe that although the occupant of the chair certainly has to be authoritative, I hope that during my time in the chair, I’ve been able to exert authority with kindness.”

Her knowing look returns. There’s no need to diminish your colleagues in order to discipline them. It’s quite possible to bring discipline to the chamber while being kind and respectful.” Has that been a problem in the past? She raises an eyebrow. “Sometimes.”  

Later, I ask Laing directly what she has learned from working with John Bercow. “In many ways John has been a brilliant Speaker,” she says enthusiastically. “He set out to be a reformer and he has done that.”

“Before [his changes], business would be decided on a Thursday. By the following Wednesday something immense might have happened, and because it didn’t fit into the parliamentary timetable, it hadn’t been discussed in parliament. I believe very, very strongly that the chamber of the House of Commons should be the forum for national debate. Not the TV studios, not parliament square, not anywhere else. John Bercow has been very good at granting urgent questions and urgent debates, therefore making every day in parliament more relevant. And if I became his successor I would continue that.”

What about the difference in personalities between the two of them? “Well that’s considerable.” She gives a wry smile.

“I do things rather differently from the way in which Speaker Bercow does things. He has… a certain style which is admirable; I have a rather different style.” Hers, she says, is one of “dignity, respect and exerting authority with kindness. Keeping the place as calm as possible while allowing genuine, good debate.”

If “authority with kindness” and proven impartiality are the two mainstays of Laing’s pitch to MPs, I get the impression that Harriet Harman has claimed territory in the race that might otherwise be Laing’s. Harman’s campaign is focused on her wealth of parliamentary experience as the longest-serving female MP, and uses the hashtag #SpeakHer to emphasise the need for another woman in the job. Laing’s experience almost rivals Harman’s, and the week I meet with her marks exactly 30 years since she entered parliament as a young special adviser to John Macgregor, a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.  

“It’s quite remarkable, I can hardly believe it,” Laing says of reaching that milestone. When she started, she was one of very few women in a cohort of roughly 100 special advisers. (“I think there were about six of us,” she comments.)  Like Harman, Laing brings her own experience to bear on the ongoing issue of harassment and bullying in Westminster.

“Things were even worse back then as a young woman in a massively male-dominated place,” she says. “I had to learn to be very thick-skinned and to deal with older men, some of whom – far from all, be careful about this, because most the men whom I dealt with were absolute gentlemen, absolute gentlemen…” she trails off, ever polite. “But of course, inevitably, there was quite a lot of what we would now describe as harassment.”

“The Strangers’ Bar in the 1990s was quite some place. I rarely went there alone. In fact I never went there alone.” She and I both laugh, before she picks up again in earnest.

“This is what is terribly important. I’ve said it before and I’ll say again, that all Members of Parliament should show respect for each other and for everyone who works in parliament. There has been a culture of bullying and the Laura Cox report recommended certain courses of action to stop this. It’s vital that we do that.”  

In Laing’s gently-gently way, she is scathing about the failure fully to implement the Cox report, which found that there was a culture of “deference and silence” in parliament that “actively sought to cover up abusive conduct” and gave no protection to those reporting bullying or sexual harassment.  

“It’s difficult to work out why it hasn’t been fully implemented,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “That makes me ask questions about the accountability of the speaker.”

“I’ve looked up the process by which it might be implemented, and that’s made me ask questions about the working of the House of Commons commission, which of course is chaired by the speaker. I wonder if that’s right. I would suggest that that might not be the right model for the structure of governance for the House of Commons in the 21st century.”

Her solution? “I think we should have a new committee to look at it. I would like to see a new committee set up by the House to examine the governance of the House itself.”

“It’s never a reasonable thing to talk to down to someone who can’t answer back. It is never reasonable to shout at someone who can’t shout back. I think it’s appalling behaviour. But there are some personalities around here who do behave like that. I remember it when I was a young staffer, I remember it when I was a new member of parliament, and it still prevails in some parts of this place and it must be stopped.”

Her interest in the welfare of young women in parliament continues even after our interview has concluded. She chats at length about my new role, and sends me off with her number and an instruction to come by her office if I ever need anything or have any questions.

Days later, the line that lingers with me is another subtext-rich comment from Laing about the minister she served, the former education secretary John MacGregor, in her days as a young Spad. “I learnt a lot from John,” she says of her ex-boss. “He is not a person who makes a lot of noise or is flamboyant. He was a very, very effective cabinet minister and Member of Parliament. I don’t think you will meet anyone who would tell you different. He was massively respected by his colleagues and by the two prime ministers under whom he worked, Margaret Thatcher and John Major – massively respected for quietly getting on with the job, for being utterly trustworthy.”

With a warm smile and a nod, the parallel with Laing herself is understood by both of us. Her name may not often be floated as the front-runner to replace Bercow as Speaker, but Laing’s assessment of her own strengths seems entirely accurate. This contest is won and lost by privately securing the backing of MPs one by one, rather than on the public stage. My meeting with Laing suggests she may, in her gentle, authoritiative way, be more of a front-runner than people have reckoned with.

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