The Government’s eleventh-hour attempt to change the rules governing the re-election of the Speaker of the House of Commons has failed. They wanted to allow a secret ballot if a returning Speaker’s candidacy is challenged, and this was widely seen as an attempt to thwart John Bercow’s return to the Chair when Parliament assembles again in May. But after bad-tempered exchanges in the Commons, MPs voted against the measure by a vote of 202-228.
Under the current rules, Bercow is more or less guaranteed re-election if he chooses to stand. As soon as he indicates his willingness to serve, the House will vote on whether or not he should take the Chair, but it’s typically a voice vote instead of a division. In theory, MPs can force a division, but they would face an uphill battle. Even if MPs were to succeed, their colleagues would likely be reluctant to go on record opposing Bercow. The Speaker is a powerful figure in the Chamber, and many MPs will think twice before doing anything that might prejudice him against them. A secret ballot would let MPs vote according to their consciences. It’s not exactly unprecedented: when the House has to elect a brand-new Speaker, it’s done through a secret ballot.
Although the basic idea of a secret ballot was sound, the Government’s handling of the situation left a lot to be desired. The Leader of the Commons, William Hague, tabled the motion the day before it was supposed to be debated. This made the proceedings look like an underhanded attempt to undermine a Speaker who is widely reviled on the Government benches, and it generated a great deal of sympathy for Bercow.
Bercow has done some commendable things during his time in the Chair. He has been a strong advocate for backbenchers, and he has been willing to force Ministers into the House to answer questions. But it seems hard to deny that he’s biased against the Conservatives (which is sort of ironic, given that he used to be a Tory) and partial toward Labour. The exultant cheers from the Labour benches when the results of the vote on the secret ballot were announced testify to the extent to which Bercow has become a partisan figure, and that’s a worrying sign. The Speaker must be above party politics, both in theory and in fact.
It’s a shame that a common-sense reform like this was defeated, but the Government have only themselves to blame.