Conservative MPs are on a three-line Whip this morning. Labour MPs are being “scrambled back”, according to the Daily Telegraph, in order not to miss the vote. What is going on?
John Bercow, that’s what – or, rather, the question of whether he should go on at all and, if so, how. The Commons will vote this morning on whether or not the Speaker should be elected by secret ballot at the start of a Parliament. At the same time as the debate takes place, a “strategy meeting” will be held for Conservative MPs on the Parliamentary estate, which will be addressed by no less senior a figure than Lynton Crosby.
Friends of the Speaker are being scraped off the sloping roof of the Commons Chamber. The Procedure Committee has recommended that the present method of electing the Speaker be retained – and that he not be subject to a secret ballot, they say. It is therefore inappropriate for William Hague, acting on behalf of the Government, to recommend otherwise in the motion that is to be considered today. Certainly, Charles Walker, the present Chairman of the Committee, is furious – especially since he was given no notice of the Government’s intention.
Furthermore, those friends say, the Committee recommended that any debate on the matter should be held in Commons prime time (as it were). Conservative MPs, under instruction to attend the Strategy Meeting, will therefore have no option but to miss it – and then stream over from Portcullis House to vote without having had a chance to hear all the arguments. They argue that Tory MPs have been given no proper notice of the vote, which won’t really be a free one. It is, they say, a squalid manoeuvre – designed by the Executive to get rid of an independent-minded Speaker – “Hague’s leaving present”.
Not so, say Government sources. Conservative MPs were told about the vote, which has been made possible by the unexpected swift progress through the Lords of the Modern Slavery Bill, as soon as was practicable. There will be plenty of time for them to hear the debate. The Speaker’s friends are defending the indefensible: what’s good for the deputy speakers, who are elected by secret ballot, should be good for the Speaker, too. If there is a secret ballot in a few weeks and the present Speaker is not elected, he can simply retire to the backbenches – as candidates for the deputy speakership do if they are unsuccessful. And they claim that the vote will be a genuinely free one.
Whatever your view, one thing is certain. A mis-formed villain who seized power through treachery is today to be solemnly buried. I refer, of course, to Richard III, whose funeral takes place today in Leicester. Some MPs, not all of them Tories, believe that the malefactor is closer to hand. Which takes ConservativeHome back to where this article began. Very many Tory MPs believe that Bercow is effectively the servant of Labour, and will view the return of its MPs to support him as proof.
Our view has long been that the Speaker’s position is therefore untenable. But that is not the matter that will be debated today – which is surely straightforward, and nothing to do with the merits or demerits of the Chair’s present occupant. We have secret ballots in elections so that those who participate in them can vote in secret. There’s no good reason why the Speaker’s should be different.