The Speaker of the House of Commons is someone the public recognise. Every week while Parliament sits he is seen on TV controlling the bear garden that is Prime Minister’s Questions.. His role is like a strict disciplinarian headmaster trying to control overgrown adolescents shouting down and jeering their opponents like kids in a school playground.
But John Bercow is more than that. He is probably the best known speaker since former Tiller girl Betty Boothroyd became a hit in the United States with her unique smack of authority in a British Parliament. And he has made big changes that are good news for democracy and the public.
It was therefore deeply depressing early on Wednesday evening when I was rung up by a very trusted source to tell me about a shabby plan to unseat him by changing the election rules for the next Parliament in May without people realising what was going on.
The master minds behind the plans appear to be William Hague, leader of the House and Michael Gove, the chief whip aided and abetted by Greg Hands, the deputy chief whip, and Cameron’s nasty Aussie election strategist, Lynton Crosby. The Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg also agreed to the ruse.
My source told me that throughout the day Tory MPs had been sent three texts by the whips designed to ambush Labour and push through an arcane rule change in Parliament which would mean curtains for Bercow. It told them that a plan to send hundreds of Tory MPs to canvass voters in the marginal seat of Hastings and Rye, held by Amber Rudd, had been cancelled and they all had to turn up on a three-line whip ( Parliament’s on pain of death) to hear Lynton Crosby outline their general election strategy in Portcullis House at 10.30 am.
What it didn’t tell them was that the order of business had been changed at the last moment and an obscure report changing the election rules of the next Speaker – traditionally elected by a public vote – would be debated in the Chamber. They proposed to change this to a secret ballot so ministers could get rid of him without their votes being recorded.The plan was for the debate to take place while Crosby was briefing Mps and the vote to take place at 11.30 am just as all Tory MPs were leaving the briefing. They would march in the lobby to vote on William Hague’s motion without really knowing what it said. And Labour MPs would know nothing about the shabby deal – most having returned to their constituencies- and government would have got rid of Bercow.
But then my trusted source got to work – and I tweeted and briefed a few papers and broadcasters- and it began to unravel. For a start the very independent minded Tory MP, Charles Walker, who chaired the procedure committee found his report had been hijacked by Hague. Furthermore it did not recommend voting changes in the election of a Speaker – the two Tories on the committee who wanted it – Sir Roger Gale and James Gray – had been soundly defeated. They then agreed to accept the status quo and the report was unanimous agreed. So Hague was being dishonest as well as sneaky. by proposing the change as it was not recommended by the report. And James Gray, to his credit, appeared so disgusted with Hague’s behaviour that he voted against the government.
Then it is clear that Angela Eagle,shadow leader of the house got wind of the deal and started summoning Labour Mps back and stopping the rest leaving. And Mr Bercow realised what the plot was about and suddenly granted two urgent questions on matters of policy which delayed the timing of the debate and the vote.
By the time it was debated yesterday the sneaky little proposal fell apart as there enough Labour Mps back in Parliament and enough Tories and Liberal Democrats rebelled to defeat the government by 26 votes.. But it had been a close run thing. Some 23 Conservative and 10 Liberal Democrat MPs revolted. Scroll down this to see the debate and vote.
This is scandalous for two reasons. Parliament’s committee of MPs are independent of government and had proposed a completely different motion to be debated.. Hague had no business changing the findings of an independent committee.
And Bercow himself is a good thing. He has made ministers far more accountable for their actions by forcing them to come to Parliament to justify decisions – on one issue we have had on this blog Theresa May has been far more scrutinised by MPs on the child sex abuse inquiry because Bercow forced her to come to Parliament by accepting urgent questions from MPs.
The coalition ministers hated this aspect of democracy because it was last minute and inconvenient They much preferred a supine Parliament. On that issue alone people should think about how they cast their vote on May 7.