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9 October 2019

What we learned from the first Speaker’s hustings

The nine candidates to succeed John Bercow faced off in Parliament this morning.

By Patrick Maguire

Only one candidate is willing to attack John Bercow…

Predictably, the first question asked of all nine candidates concerned the man they want to replace: John Bercow. Had the incumbent damaged his office’s reputation for impartiality?

Only one candidate, the former Tory minister Shailesh Vara, answered the question without qualification — and gave a straight no. Comparing Bercow to a playground bully – a phrase he returned to throughout the hustings – he claimed he had demeaned his office. 

Strikingly, neither Edward Leigh nor Henry Bellingham — the two other Conservative Brexiteers in the running — agreed with him. Leigh would only say that Bercow was perceived by much of the country as a biased referee. Bellingham, meanwhile, praised the incumbent as a “great Speaker” — though acknowledged he had favourites. 

Their reluctance to go for Bercow’s jugular despite the contempt he is held in by many Leavers speaks to an enduring and, in 2019, perhaps surprising affection for him on the Tory backbenches. Indeed, the wisdom of his efforts to enhance the power of the legislature to challenge and muzzle the executive were questioned by none of the candidates. All of them, to one degree or another, pledged to continue his work. 

The other contenders, meanwhile, fell into two camps. Both Chris Bryant and Lindsay Hoyle explicitly criticised Bercow’s conduct in the chair, and pledged neutrality. “I am fair, I am neutral,” insisted Hoyle. “I don’t want to have a view on Brexit at all after 4 November,” said Bryant. Waspishly, Eleanor Laing insisted maintaining impartiality in the chair was “not hard”, and later said Bercow’s idiosyncratic personal style had whipped up tensions in the chamber. 

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Harriet Harman, meanwhile, sought to recast Bercow’s conduct — and her own putative approach to the job — as scrupulously and unimpeachably neutral. Playing with precedents was justifiable, she said, as long as it had the support of the majority. The Speaker must be the servant of Parliament, and it cannot be impartial on that,” she said. Hers is the most straightforward continuity pitch. 

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…but all are aware of the desire for a fresh start

As much as every candidate but Vara was keen to avoid ad hominem attacks on Bercow, each of the candidate clearly recognises what their colleagues do not like about him. 

None said they would match his decade in the chair – or at least did not follow his lead in setting a retirement deadline that they might miss. Vara and Bellingham said they would serve for six years; Leigh and Bryant for eight at the most; while Hoyle, Harman and Laing said the decision was for the House. Winterton, meanwhile, said even answering the question was “very unwise”.

Later, asked to reveal how they voted in the 2016 EU referendum and to explain how they could remain impartial on Brexit, all nine candidates categorically pledged not to take sides, regardless of their private allegiance. 

Implicit in the question — and the answers — was an understanding that Bercow has at least appeared to do so. 

The same was true of their more or less universal condemnation of some of the more contentious practices that have crept in under the current Speaker: clapping, singing, the use of props, photography in the chamber. Harman was the only candidate not to advocate an outright ban on applause. 

Similarly, every candidate bar two said Prime Minister’s Questions – which now regularly drags on for nearly an hour – should be allocated less time. 

Vara, Bryant, Bellingham, Laing and Leigh called for half an hour; Winterton and Hoyle for 35 minutes. Hillier raised eyebrows by suggesting it ought to be extended to an hour, while Harman demurred, saying it was not the Speaker’s place to decide. She did, however, call for the leader of the opposition to get fewer than six questions. “I’ve done it, and it drags,” she said.

That Harman took the most equivocal line on all of these questions betrays the fact that the bedrock of her support is mostly made up of the Remainer MPs who, by and large, are more likely to be less reverent of convention. 

Whoever wins, a codified constitution is coming 

With the exception of Leigh and Bellingham — the two candidates with the slimmest chances of success — every candidate called for at least a review of the rules that govern the office of Speaker. 

Harman, Winterton and Bryant all called for a so-called Speaker’s Conference — a constitutional convention that would review the power and responsibilities of the office. Harman in particular stressed the other big theme of her campaign: the need for greater transparency and accountability, including a new mechanism to oust the occupant of the chair. 

Hoyle, Vara and Bryant went further, and called for the introduction of written rules governing the office of Speaker. That, as Eleanor Laing cautioned, would amount to the introduction of a written constitution — something that many Tories are instinctively averse to. 

It speaks to one of the great known unknown dynamics of the race: to what extent will MPs (and particularly Tories) be governed by their political heads, rather than their emotions towards Bercow?

Whose candidate is Lindsay Hoyle?

Hoyle, like Winterton and Laing — his fellow deputy speakers — leant heavily on his proven ability to do the job. Unlike any of the other candidates, he can attest to having chaired PMQs and the budget, and plenty of MPs are fond of his brisk, bluff style — particularly Conservative Brexiteers unenamoured with the current Speaker. 

But for all the criticism of Bercow as a constitutional vandal, Hoyle breezily proposed a series of reforms that in their own way are every bit as radical as anything the incumbent has done: not only a codified rulebook, but also requiring the Speaker to stand down as a constituency MP. 

It is not a given that Conservatives who are otherwise four-square behind Hoyle will like the sound of either. The crowded field and unique voting system – MPs will vote in exhaustive, non-preferential ballots, with the last-placed candidate eliminated each time – means these slender margins will matter.

There is a point to Shailesh Vara after all

When Vara declared, he raised eyebrows – and not necessarily in a good way. The former junior minister at the Northern Ireland Office lacks the profile of most of the other contenders, and his campaign seemed to raise an uncomfortable but inevitable question: what’s the point?

He answered it with gusto this morning. Chris Bryant had hitherto been the only candidate to make his campaign about Bercow’s failings – but only by implication. Vara outflanked him and then some, making repeated and unequivocal attacks on the incumbent. He also stressed the significance of electing the first ethnic minority Speaker. 

Is it a winning strategy? Probably not. But Vara’s pitch is not without a market.

In the minds of the electorate, the real divide might not be over Brexit

Much has been made of how the candidates’ differences on Brexit – and Bercow – could influence the race and its eventual result. 

Yet, over the course of two hours, it became clear that those divisions are really secondary to a more fundamental question about the role of the Speaker. 

Is the primary role of the chair to ensure that the Commons runs smoothly as a legislative body, and to act as a shop steward and champion for the MPs who sit in it? Of the top tier candidates, Hoyle and Laing seem to think so.

Or should they focus above all else on reforming Parliament, its public image and its internal processes – especially those for dealing with sexual harassment and bullying – for all who work on its estate, as Hillier and Harman emphasised?

Those aims, it should be said, aren’t mutually exclusive in the minds of the candidates. But which of the two MPs decide is more important looks much likelier to have a decisive impact on the result than Brexit.