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24 February 2024

The runaway Speaker

How Lindsay Hoyle went from popular shop steward to villainous traitor.

By Freddie Hayward

For 40 minutes on Wednesday afternoon, it was uncertain whether the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, could hold out. Not in his job. But from being forced to return to his chair. The SNP’s pugilistic Westminster leader Stephen Flynn would not rest. He had just stood for the third time to demand to know where Hoyle was. The reason for his outrage was that Hoyle had gone against precedent – and his clerk’s advice – by selecting a Labour amendment to the SNP’s motion on an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. In doing so, he scuppered the SNP’s vote on the day it was supposed to control the parliamentary agenda.

It was 7.03pm before Hoyle returned. Here was the inattentive chef who had let the pans boil over. But he could not turn the temperature down. His defence was that Labour MPs needed to be able to vote on their amendment, and state to abusive and threatening constituents that they had voted for a ceasefire. Flynn was unappeased. “It will take significant convincing that your position is not now intolerable,” he growled.

At that point, the shadow leader of the House, Labour’s Lucy Powell, reminded MPs that, amid the chaos, Labour’s motion had in fact been carried. It was as if the teacher’s pet had started boasting about their results, such was the anger. Now is not the time, an embarrassed Hoyle interjected, perhaps realising that a victory for his old party made him look even more suspicious. “I’m just going to leave it at that,” he said. And off he went.

There was disbelief. This was a stitch-up, his critics thought. The anger lay in the idea that Keir Starmer’s office had pressured Hoyle to select a Labour amendment in order to prevent a backbench revolt. Remember that the Labour leader began this week staring a 100-MP rebellion in the face. By its end, 69 MPs had publicly called for Hoyle to resign.

The Chorley MP became the central character in a week supposed to be about the wreckage in Gaza. Starmer walked away from the scene with his political authority enhanced, the Speaker left in his wake fighting for survival. It was a week in which Hoyle went from popular shop steward to villainous traitor.

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The roots of that anger lie in how Hoyle first got the job. The contest to replace John Bercow as Speaker in 2019 became a race to become the anti-Bercow. Hoyle – who blusters through debates without Bercow’s oratorical range and ministerial put-downs – was elected by MPs to be the antidote to his status-seeking and divisive predecessor. That was why Tory MP William Wragg, who tabled the no-confidence motion, voted for the man he now wants to remove from the Speaker’s chair. Until this week, MPs considered Hoyle to have fulfilled his mandate: restoring impartiality, chairing not participating, and placing his pride to one side.

It made sense because Bercow and Hoyle were different men. Bercow was a frustrated shadow secretary of state. You could imagine him scouring the papers each morning for his name. “After a while I think he felt constrained, and bored by those constraints – he then tried to break free,” said one MP. Compare that with Hoyle who, according to one friend, was a parliamentary creature who became Speaker out of his love for the House. One stars on the American reality TV show The Traitors, the other spends his Saturday afternoons watching England rugby in an armchair wearing pink-and-blue-striped socks.

Hoyle, 66, is the sort of person who calls for a children’s hospital to be built as a memorial to Princess Diana. He once thought Heathrow should be renamed the Princess of Wales Airport. He leans into the Lancashire stereotype, cracking jokes about hotpot and Eccles cake. MPs like to find him in the tearoom or inspecting the polish on cutlery. The extent of past controversy has been his common denial that parliament has a rat problem. Bercow thrived on courting anger. Hoyle recoils from conflict.

These characteristics invite sympathy, and the emotion Hoyle showed in the House should be seen in this context. He was the salve to soothe the Brexit war wounds. But then the war in Gaza stumped him – his concern for members’ welfare collided with his commitment to parliamentary procedure.

Over an afternoon, therefore, he went from being perceived by some MPs as a grandfatherly protector of MPs’ rights to a politicking lackey, caving in to a party leader destined for No 10. That hurt. He did not stand aloof but returned to the Chamber chastened to say he was sorry. Twice. He had not lived up to expectations of himself and his conscience needed to be unburdened. He wanted his favourite members’ club to welcome him back in. He wanted to be liked.

But his apology fell short. The SNP was not going to give up another grievance with which to beat Westminster. Tory constitutionalists such as Wragg were appalled by a deviation from tradition that appeared partisan. One MP noted that Hoyle had dropped the “sir” when calling Sir Keir Starmer to speak, supposedly as a favour to the Labour leader. “He’s an adroit politician – he’s not a saint,” they said. The number of MPs who signed the no-confidence motion in Hoyle had risen to 69 by Friday – more than 10 per cent of members.

But the government, perhaps aware that parliamentary bickering was not atop voters’ priorities, slowly slid in behind Hoyle. Labour, grateful that the Speaker’s flexible approach to procedure had averted a back-bench rebellion, did the same. Nor did all backbenchers want to be complicit in an SNP revolt. As one Tory MP put it: “That the Conservative Party is going to give the Speaker’s head to the SNP – the Speaker of the UK parliament to the SNP, which wants to break up the United Kingdom – is just beyond imaginable.”

Sixty-nine votes is nothing, Hoyle’s friends say. Bercow was under constant assault from MPs and did not resign. On the last parliamentary day before the 2015 general election, 202 MPs voted to make it easier to remove Bercow by introducing a secret ballot. Another motion of no confidence was tabled in 2017 when Bercow expressed his views on Donald Trump with too much relish.

Ousting speakers is much like ousting prime ministers: it requires momentum. MPs returning to their constituencies on Thursday evening sapped the anti-Hoyle campaign’s energy. He looks secure for now – as long as he does not become the story once again. As one MP concluded: “The role of Speaker is performed best when it’s not in the news.”

[See also: The Tory peer linked to £3.8bn in government contracts]

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