There was a time when both MPs and viewers of Prime Minister’s Question Time would welcome an interjection from the Commons Speaker. Indeed, there was a time when the Speaker commanded the respect not just of the entire House but the whole nation. But, after almost six years of John Bercow in the chair, that feels like the long and distant past.
In the good old days, when Betty Boothroyd was Speaker, MPs on all sides would fall silent at the first inkling that she was about to rise to her feet. First she would daintily withdraw her black-stockinged feet from the green leather stool in front of her. Then she would draw herself up to stand just as the long, deep, almost gutteral sound of the first syllable of ‘Orrrrrrrrrrr-der’ would reverberate around the chamber. At this, hundreds of loud, boorish, shouting men would quiver back into their own seats, giggling nervously as if the headmistress had just walked in on them playing a game of ‘you show me yours’. Once standing, Baroness Boothroyd, as she now is, would deliver pithy but stinging put-downs to recalcitrant MPs that left no doubt who was in charge.
My abiding favourite was a remark to a rather red-faced and sweaty Sir Nicholas Soames who was being particularly loud at Prime Minister’s Questions in the days when it began at 3pm and therefore afforded ample opportunity for pre-PMQs refreshments. ‘You Sir,’ the Speaker began, with an accusing finger pointed directly at Soames, ‘Have had a VERY long lunch.’ And that, greeted by peals of laughter from all sides, was enough to shut Soames up for the rest of the session.
Compare and contrast, if you will, Baroness Boothroyd’s witty rebuke to the tiresome and repetitive intonations of our current Speaker, John Bercow. Every week, as MPs grow rowdier and rowdier, we hear the same thing from the Speaker: ‘Order. The Leader of the Opposition will be heard. If we overrun, so be it; it does not matter to me. The right honourable gentleman will be heard, and the Prime Minister will be heard, and every other member will be heard.’
That was taken verbatim from yesterday’s Hansard record but it could be from any week of any year that Bercow has been in the chair. It’s his mantra. And it serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever because as soon as he sits down, MPs return to doing exactly what they were doing before he stood up. If Boothroyd was the feared but respected headmistress of the House, Bercow is the cocky supply teacher who foolishly thinks that all the kids will love him and his ‘I’m not wearing a tie/wig’ modernity.
Now Westminster is in a tizz over the brazen attempt by the Tories and Liberal Democrats to oust John Bercow from the chair in an act blasted by some on Labour’s side as ‘shabby’ and ‘deceitful’. William Hague, in his final act as Leader of the House, stands accused of a petty act of revenge for orchestrating a last minute emergency vote today to introduce a secret ballot of MPs to re-elect the Speaker for another Parliament after the general election. It was a plot that backfired spectacularly when it was defeated by the Labour benches by 228 votes to 202 after a heated and at times almost teary-eyed debate in the chamber.
It had been billed as a ‘payback’ plot by Tories amid claims that the supposedly neutral Bercow has been biased against them, despite his past as a Conservative MP himself. I have no doubt that many Tories hate John Bercow, or indeed that they perceive him as not entirely neutral, and they are probably justified in thinking that.
John Bercow remains as Speaker for now but the key reason why he should be ousted from the chair is not really about party politics or revenge but actually about the simple fact that he is a terrible Speaker who simply does not command the respect of the whole House. Even the Labour MPs who are feigning outrage at the failed coup today will admit in private that Bercow is a poor Speaker, while everyone knows Labour’s Lindsay Hoyle, currently deputy Speaker, would be much better – and more popular – in the chair.
Today John Bercow’s allies urged MPs not to back the call for a secret ballot. Yet the very fact that they objected to a secret ballot at all is precisely the reason why we need a secret ballot for the Speaker’s re-election! Either Bercow commands the respect of the whole House or he doesn’t. If he does, then a vote to re-elect him will have precisely the same result whether it is held in public or by secret ballot.
It is quite clear that Bercow and his acolytes know that isn’t the case and they objected to a secret ballot because they fear the Speaker will lose if MPs could vote against him without fear of being identified and then punished for years to come by rarely being called to speak in the chamber.
So, despite the failure of today’s attempted coup, Bercow’s future remains in doubt because not only has today’s vote proved that Bercow does not command the confidence of the whole House, it also proved he knows full well that he doesn’t.
On those grounds alone, there shouldn’t need to be a ballot on this at all– whether open or secret – because John Bercow shouldn’t wait for a vote to end his Speakership, he should hang up his gown right now. It’s what Betty would have done.