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Coffee House

Be careful what you wish for, Bercow plotters

1 July 2012

12:15 PM

1 July 2012

12:15 PM

Tory MPs are plotting to oust Speaker Bercow, the Sun on Sunday reports today. They are apparently furious that Bercow allowed Chris Bryant to brand Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt a ‘liar’ in his party’s opposition day debate calling for a full investigation into Hunt’s conduct. The Speaker refused to censure Bryant because he argued the unparliamentary language mirrored the wording of Labour’s motion for the debate.

This attempted coup is another sign of the fierce loyalty that backbenchers feel for the Culture Secretary. You insult Hunt, and you insult the party: the Lib Dems learned that after they allowed their MPs to abstain on that motion and lost any goodwill from the Tory backbench on Lords reform.

But backbenchers keen to see the downfall of the Speaker should beware: he’s one of greatest sources of their power. He makes life uncomfortable for ministers on a weekly basis by granting urgent questions on policy matters and scandals, his argument being that ‘an unpredictable House is a more effective House’. He has spiced up departmental questions by demanding snappy exchanges to keep ministers on their toes. He supported the introduction of the e-petitions system which led to 81 Conservative backbenchers sending their party a clear call for an EU referendum.

He also delights in extending Prime Minister’s Questions for as long as he possibly can, partly because he knows those extra minutes at the end of a rowdy half an hour in the Chamber irk David Cameron no end. But even that brings backbenchers to the fore, giving them more time to press the PM on their favourite issues.

Michael Martin granted just two urgent questions in 12 months when he was Speaker. In his first year in office, Bercow granted 25. His decision not to slap down Bryant was strange, not least because the motion (which you can read here) actually called Hunt to be investigated by Sir Alex Allan, rather than describing him as a ‘liar’ or actually questioning his actions at all. But if MPs see that as the Speaker’s fatal move, they’ll need to be careful what they wish for. If they don’t find a replacement with a similar zeal for promoting the chamber and particularly the voice of backbenchers, they might live to regret their coup.

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