By Paul Goodman
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In some ways, John Bercow has turned out to be a good Speaker, speeding up business, discomforting Ministers by allowing more Urgent Questions, and generally standing up for the legislature against the executive, which is a big part of what he's there's for. In one particular way, however, he is a bad one, in that his troubled relationship with his former party has compromised his impartiality. This assertion is backed up by facts. Rob Wison, the very capable Conservative MP who's taking an active interest in the Savile scandal, has meticulously reviewed Mr Bercow's Commons interventions, and doesn't mince his words about them. The Speaker, in his view, is biased.
My reaction on first reading today's news of the resignation of four out of five of IPSA's board members was thus to raise an eyebrow, and my assumption was that the flammable Mr Bercow had messed up again. But first readings aren't always right and stories sometimes need a second glance. For example, the Guardian's story today about Chris Heaton-Harris, James Delingpole and the Corby by-election suggests that Mr Delingpole was never going to put down a deposit – so its implication that Mr Heaton Harris "backed [a] rival [candidate] candidate" is wide of the mark, which perhaps explains why these words are in quotation marks in the article's headline.
So it is that the Daily Telegraph's account of the Bercow controversy explains that the four members of the board have resigned because they don't approve of the way in which the Speaker has changed the appointments process. Mr Bercow, however, insists "that he was acting under the advice of independent
lawyers to ensure that the board selection process was fair and lawful". I don't know if the Speaker was right to set up a panel to vet potential new members of IPSA's board, and nor do I know if the way in which he went about it was right, either. But the Telegraph makes it clear that under the Speaker's plan "the board would all have to
reapply when their four-year terms expired".
"Rather than be vetted," the paper continues, "Sir Scott Baker, a
former Appeal Court judge, Jackie Ballard, a charity head, Ken Olisa, a
businessman, and Professor Isobel Sharp quit their posts." So it ought to be borne in mind that these distinguished persons may have concluded that some or all of them might not to be re-appointed when the selection process for IPSA's Board, as revised by Mr Bercow, took place. At this point, I should declare an interest – or perhaps a lack of one. I was approached recently to apply for a place on the IPSA Board, and saw on reading the conditions that the Speaker would play a part in the selection process.
I thought that it was unlikely that I would be successful if I applied, and decided that since I've no confidence in the Speaker it would be wrong to do so in any event. I write this simply to emphasise that I am not exactly biased in Mr Bercow's favour, before adding that it really isn't evident from the facts reported that he's done anything wrong at all. It's also worth asking what IPSA, set up with some 80 staff at a cost of over £6 million, achieves that Freedom of Information wouldn't do anyway. After all, it is fear of the latter that keeps MPs on their toes, since under its terms their expenses are published and they have to justify what they claim to their constituents. For once, the Speaker may be more sinned against than sinning.