On the 26th of March 2015 there was some politically motivated constitutional chicanery which went largely unnoticed by the main media channels. There was a motion in the House of Commons to change the voting rules of the Speaker and move towards a secret ballot system, thus allowing the new Parliament, or rather the Government, to rid itself of Bercow. The reform in itself seems like a progressive measure but this move was shrouded in political motivation by Gove and Hague to take down one of the most progressive Speakers in recent times. This is why I began the “Save Bercow Petition” for people to register their disgust at such a move.
Bercow was elected in the last Parliament as a relatively liberal reformer on a mandate to modernise the House of Commons. Indeed while Bercow may have been a Tory before undertaking his ‘independence’, Gordon Brown’s parting shot that “…you had previously given up your party long before [becoming Speaker]” seems the strongest indication of Bercow’s allegiance in the House. Insofar as his mandate is concerned Bercow has been true to his word by ditching the old robes and trying to make Parliament more accessible to the general public. When the Clerk of the House opted for early retirement, instead of pandering to the establishment status quo of making an internal appointment Bercow attempted to take the unprecedented action of looking outside the House promoting Carol Mills as Sir Robert Rogers’ replacement.
The general public often complain about Parliament being a cosy old establishment club, a critique often levied by the anti-mainstream UKIP movement, but in this case Bercow tried to modernise the chamber by taking the opportunity to replace an archaic relic of Westminster with an Australian progressive. This in itself was perceived as a challenge to the constitutionalist status quo and unfortunately Bercow failed in his attempt.
These are all examples of how Bercow has tried to fulfil (and sometimes failed) to enact the mandate he was elected for. There can be no authority given to any claim that he has ever acted against this mandate. That stated, Bercow may well have ridden the constitutionalist opposition without a challenge to his position had it not been for his strengthening of Parliament against the will of the Executive.
In comparison to his predecessors, Bercow actually began to stand up to ministers and not bow down to their ministerial position; Parliament has too often done so in the past. Michael Gove has been on the receiving end of some of his harshest attacks, being told to write lines for bad behaviour in the Commons; as indeed has the Prime Minister who was told he had finished before trying to land a further blow on Ed Miliband’s appointment of David Axelrod in Prime Minister’s questions. The discipline of the Speaker which previously was only exercised against ordinary backbenchers is now being levied against those in power. The Government as a result has not taken too kindly to the new order of proceedings.
It is not only his straightforward attitude that has pushed the Government into a frontline battle with Bercow. The previous Speaker had only granted two urgent questions in his last year in the chamber, but Bercow has become a champion of Parliamentary accountability pulling in Ministers for urgent questions on a far more frequent basis. For example on the Thursday before a motion to change the selection process was to be debated, Bercow scheduled three urgent questions in the chamber, covering a diverse range of subjects including undercover policing. By hauling in ministers this often, he has not only shown his willingness to empower backbench MPs but also ensure that Governmental ministers are held accountable by Parliament for their actions. The Government would prefer to not have to answer difficult questions and use Parliament, as many previous Governments have, to quietly pass legislation without too much scrutiny. This was the real reason behind the motion put forward by the leader of the House, to try and censor the empowerment of Parliament by the Speaker.
The Procedural Committee whose report was cited and used by William Hague couldn’t have been more impassioned and quick to distance itself from its weaponisation by the front bench. Charles Walker, a Conservative nonetheless, insisted he has written the report “years ago” and that he had been played as a “fool”, receiving a standing ovation in the process by the Labour Party and some from his own party. Hague was quickly left standing with the usual anti-Bercow crowd as many defied the whip to rush to the aid of the Speaker. Thus the legitimacy of the motion being put forward was fatally discredited and William Hague’s last act as an MP brings a sorry end to a largely positive political career.
The motion was quite rightly defeated a margin of 26 (For 202, Against 228) and whilst all MPs will have had different reasons for voting in the way they did one thing is now certain – Bercow is here to stay. The defeat of the motion now demonstrates that if there is a Tory led Government after the election in May there will be a clearer split between the Government and Parliament than we have potentially ever had. Rather than be fearful of it, however, Parliament for too long has had its power constrained by strong Government and maybe this will liberate it.
As I said initially I started the “Save Bercow” petition which gained 180 signatures in less than 18 hours. I believe that there is public support for what Bercow is trying to do and he is proving to be one of the most effective political figures of modern times. It is right that Government ministers are held more accountable to Parliament, it is right that Parliament needs to become more accessible to the general public, but most importantly it is right that there is a separation between the House of Commons and the Government. Parliament has always chosen its Speaker and it is right it should continue to do so. Long may Bercow continue to modernise the chamber and if the Government is his biggest opponent then it is a sign he is doing something right.
Parliament made the difficult but correct decision to stand up for its sovereignty and reject the attempted removal of Bercow by the Government.