Eleanor Laing, one of eight declared candidates to become the next Commons Speaker, says “it’s time we did things a bit differently”.
She chooses her words carefully in this interview, as befits someone already serving as a Deputy Speaker. But she declares that if elected, she will not model herself on the current Speaker, John Bercow, who
“has said various things fairly publicly over the past few months which lead one to conclude that on some matters he might not be totally impartial.”
In her view, there is no need “to diminish people in order to discipline them”. She regards Betty Boothroyd, Speaker from 1992-2000 – whom Laing watched, admired and was helped by after arriving in 1997 as Conservative MP for Epping Forest – as a far better role model.
Laing deplores “the underculture of bullying that has been identified” at the Palace of Westminster. She says the Cox report, which came out almost a year ago, is “an important piece of work”, but is taking too long to implement, because there is no proper accountability:
“it is extraordinary that the Speaker of the House of Commons, almost uniquely for a person who has power and influence in a democracy, is totally unaccountable.”
In her view, this deficiency can only be remedied with the next Speaker’s consent, which if elected she would give.
She is perturbed by the case now being heard in the Supreme Court,
“Because if they take a controversial decision then they will be upsetting the very fine balance which is the basis of our constitutional settlement, between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary…and that is very dangerous territory.”
ConHome: “You’ve been a Deputy Speaker for six years, so you know a great deal about it, and have worked very closely with John Bercow, who has a very distinctive style. Do you intend to follow suit?”
Laing: “That’s a great question, and the answer is ‘No’. We are an always evolving institution here, and I think it’s time we did things a bit differently.
“I have sat in the chair for six years, so that part of the Speaker’s job I have experienced, and I know it quite well.
“And the way in which I keep order and direct the proceedings in the House is rather different from the way Speaker Bercow does it.
“Everybody has their own style and their own way of doing things.”
ConHome: “So how would you characterise your style?”
Laing: “I hope that I have exerted authority with kindness. I don’t see any need to diminish people in order to discipline them.
“It is perfectly possible to ask someone to conclude their remarks, or to require people to stop making a noise, or to sit down, or in some other way to direct the proceedings in the House.”
ConHome: “After you were elected an MP, you had three years with Betty Boothroyd as Speaker?”
Laing: “Yes, and I was an Opposition Whip for two of those years with Betty Boothroyd.”
ConHome: “So you were sitting very near to her.”
Laing: “Very near to her. Betty was really helpful, really instructive, and I watched very carefully how she managed the House.
“Women do things rather differently from men. There is a notable difference in style.
“Most women are not as big or as loud, or as physically strong, as most men. Therefore we have other ways of exerting our authority.
“And it goes without saying that I deplore the underculture of bullying that has been identified.
“I consider that the Cox Report is an important piece of work. It has been noted, but it’s taking too long to implement it.
“I wonder why? I don’t know why it’s taking so long to implement it.
“And that brings me to the question of who has the responsibility for doing so, and where is the accountability.
“What is the role of the Commission that is chaired by the Speaker? Who appoints the Commission? Where does the power lie?
“And the answer to this is it’s not clear. And perhaps it should be rather more clear, because there’s no direct line of accountability.
“I’ve experienced this at close quarters as Deputy Speaker. People ask me, ‘How is such and such a decision made?’
“And the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’”
ConHome: “That’s astonishing, if you’ve had six years intimately involved in the whole machinery.”
Laing: “If I don’t know how a decision is made then that is evidence that there is no accountability.
“And it is extraordinary that the Speaker of the House of Commons, almost uniquely for a person who has power and influence in a democracy, is totally unaccountable.
“And I think that one of the things we have to do differently, in this time of significant turmoil in the evolution of our constitution, is to consider the role of the Speaker and the governance of the House of Commons.”
ConHome: “So how would you make him or her accountable?”
Laing: “Well first of all, we all have to be very careful about making promises. Candidates for any role like to make promises.
“Now I want to be truthful and say there are few areas in which the Speaker alone can actually change things.
“But if we had a Speaker who was willing to become accountable, it would be easier for the House of Commons to put in place measures which would cause that accountability.
“If you have a Speaker who doesn’t want to be accountable, which would be carrying on the current tradition, I’m putting this very carefully…”
ConHome: “You can put it less carefully if you like.”
Laing: “I’m putting this very carefully. If you have a Speaker who doesn’t want to be accountable then it would be difficult for methods of accountability to be put in place.
“If I were to become Speaker then the first thing I would do is make clear that I do believe the office of Speaker should be more accountable; that there should be clearer paths of accountability in the way the Commons is governed.
“It would not be for the Speaker to make these decisions. It would be for a new Speaker to suggest that, let’s say, a select committee be set up, to look at all aspects of the governance of the House.”
ConHome: “What do you hope would come out of that? You must have an idea of what you would like.”
Laing: “Yes, I do. For example, such a committee might suggest that the term of office of the Speaker should be no longer than a certain number of years.”
ConHome: “How many?”
Laing: “Let’s say six or seven.”
ConHome: “There have been great Speakers who’ve done much more than that. But you think in modern times that’s simply not feasible?”
Laing: “No, in modern times, I think the current Speaker has done longer than anyone in modern times.”
ConHome: “So he’s done too long in fact?”
Laing: “Well, that’s not for me to say.”
ConHome: “What’s it been like working with him?”
Laing: “Well I’ve always got on very well with John. We’ve been friends for 32 years. We fought seats together in Scotland in 1987.”
ConHome: “You fought Paisley.”
Laing: “That’s right, and John fought in Motherwell.”
ConHome: “So you were much more local. You could give him some instruction, perhaps.”
Laing: “I don’t claim that I did that.”
ConHome: “But he wasn’t exactly a local boy.”
Laing: “No, but he was a good candidate, because he’s a good politician. I’ve known him since then and I’ve always got on very well with him.
“And yes of course, working with him on a daily basis for six years, I haven’t always agreed with everything he’s decided, but I’ve always respected his right to make certain decisions.
“And I do know that he is assiduous, he’s dutiful, and effective. And yes of course he comes in for a lot of criticism, because he has been controversial, but he has achieved a lot as Speaker.”
ConHome: “On the accountability point, I was a parliamentary sketch writer when Michael Martin was Speaker, and there was accountability in the end, his position became untenable in 2009, but that was obviously in rather extreme circumstances, because there was a tremendous crisis over MPs’ expenses which he was seen not to have risen to.
“But I do remember the Chamber becalmed during the afternoon, almost nothing happening, you got to Question Three on the Order Paper if you were lucky, and it seemed almost impossible to debate anything which was actually happening in the outside world.
“And obviously Bercow did revolutionise that.”
Laing: “Yes. His use of Urgent Questions has been excellent. He set out to make the Government more accountable to Parliament and that’s a worthy ambition, and one which he’s achieved.”
ConHome: “But do you agree with most of your Conservative colleagues that he’s in fact a biased Speaker?”
Laing [after a long pause]: “I think the way he conducts the business of the House from the Chair is reasonably impartial. But he has said various things fairly publicly over the past few months which lead one to conclude that on some matters he might not be totally impartial.
“The funny thing is, I think one of the roles that the Speaker ought to play is to give voice to minorities. And John has said that’s what he wants to do, and to a very great extent he’s done it – Urgent Questions, Emergency Debates etcetera – and he’s also been very good at opening up Speaker’s House for charitable organisations and others to come in, to give them a base in Parliament to put their views.
“If I were to be his successor, I would hope to continue all these good things he’s done. But it’s rather ironic, is it not, that currently, the minority of Members of Parliament, who desperately want their voice to be heard, are MPs who support Brexit.
“Leaver MPs are the minority, and its rather ironic that it’s the voice of the majority that’s coming through so strongly, and the minority is struggling to be heard. I put it no stronger than that.
“Traditionally, the majority of MPs in the governing party are not usually the minority. But right now they are. The largest proportion of MPs in the party of government are a minority, and there’s no protection for them.
“But the Speaker would argue, I’m sure, that what he’s done in recent weeks is to implement the will of Parliament.
“And I recently as Deputy Speaker took a couple of decisions which were controversial and which I think were correct because they were implementing the will of Parliament.
“In the Northern Ireland Bill, where a large number of MPs had put down new clauses in respect of abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland, and in respect of gay marriage in Northern Ireland.
“And it was a finely balanced decision whether to allow those clauses to be debated and voted upon.
“And because it was the Committee stage, the decision fell not to the Speaker but to me, on that particular day.”
ConHome: “How long did you have to make up your mind?”
Laing: “About 24 hours. And I looked at it very carefully, and I read every reference I could in Erskine May.
“Sometimes people call Erskine May the parliamentary Bible. I really do treat it like a Bible. I love Erskine May, I care about Erskine May, it sits up there beside my desk at all times, and I look at it frequently.
“But then I’m a lawyer. I can’t help that. It’s part of the way your mind works as a lawyer.
“And when I took those decisions, I knew it would be controversial, and I knew they would be very unpopular with some people. But in both cases the matters which I had allowed to go to a vote were carried by enormous majorities in the Commons, and therefore I was implementing the will of the House. And I believe that’s what the Speaker should do.”
ConHome: “While also standing up for minorities.”
Laing: “Well that’s it. That’s the balance. And it is difficult.”
ConHome: “What do you think about the case now being heard in the Supreme Court?”
Laing: “Well what I will say is at the point where we’re having this conversation, the Supreme Court is sitting and we don’t know what they will decide.
“And I’m nervous about it. Because if they take a controversial decision then they will be upsetting the very fine balance which is the basis of our constitutional settlement, between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.
“It’s like a three-legged stool, and if you change that balance, you change the creature, and that is very dangerous territory.”
ConHome: “If you become Speaker, will you wear the proper robes?”
Laing [after a pause]: “I hadn’t thought about that. I don’t think we need to bring wigs back, although of course it would be tempting, because you wouldn’t have to bother doing your hair in the morning.
“It would be tempting to think of putting on a wig because that would save time with the hair dryer.
“But I would say what is important, one of my watchwords, is dignity. What I would like to see is a greater degree of dignity restored to the House of Commons, and to the role of Speaker.
“And what is worn in the Chair is part of that dignity.
“Dignity, kindness, authority rather than bossiness, and I do believe that those things could be brought to the Chair by a woman.”