Today’s debate and vote on the unexpected attempt to require a secret ballot to elect the Speaker led to some remarkable scenes. William Hague started the debate clearly enjoying a last chance to cross swords with Labour, but ended it looking more than a little pained. Charles Walker, the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, delivered one of the most memorable speeches for some years, his voice cracking with emotion. In the end, after frantic efforts of the Whips on what was supposedly an unwhipped vote, the Government’s proposal was rejected – Labour applauded, and Bercow seemed to be choking back tears.
What does it all mean?
- As Paul noted this morning, the principle of electing the Speaker on a secret ballot is a good one. No MP should feel constrained from casting an honest vote for fear of being targeted by a vengeful Speaker afterwards.
- While the vote was on that topic, of course it was also about this Speaker in particular. In allowing (or even encouraging) the debate to be blurred from the technical into the personal, the Government made a serious mistake.
- The timing and introduction of the whole thing was also a disaster. Some MPs (David Davis, for instance) stated during the debate that they agreed with the principle under discussion, but had been put off from voting for it by the way the House was treated. Backbenchers do not like the feeling that the Executive is bullying them or taking them for granted – giving the appearance of doing so may have been the difference between defeat and victory. Poor party management has plagued the Tory leadership several times in recent years – this was another instance of a mess of their own making.
- I’m sure this was not how William Hague saw the last day of his Commons career playing out. He deserved better – and colleague after colleague told him so, to his evident discomfort.
- The hunt for who to blame will already be underway. Was it a miscalculation and poor whipping on Gove’s part? Was it a foolish insistence of the Prime Minister or the Chancellor? Was Hague put up to it against his will, or was he up for the fight? No doubt ‘friends’ of each potential villain will have their say over the next couple of days.
- Whoever is to blame, we shouldn’t get carried away about the repercussions of the defeat. There are few things less likely to sway the electorate than a combination of interpersonal and procedural issues within the Commons. But it will have an effect on the morale of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Cameron scored a major victory at PMQs yesterday, and the general expectation was that his MPs would be able to finish the term buoyed up by it. Instead, they are heading back to their constituencies either angry at the leadership for throwing its weight around or frustrated that it failed to get the job done. The morale boost Cameron won yesterday has been thrown away today.
- Yet again we see the peculiar character of John Bercow’s speakership. His worst enemy is himself, having been the sole author of his own troubles. But his best friends are his enemies, who keep stuffing up attempts to get rid of him.
- It’s worth noting that today does not mean that Bercow is safe in his chair. MPs could, of course, simply vote him out in a non-secret ballot when the new parliament begins. Or failing that he will certainly end up causing more trouble for himself at a later date (even Walker’s supportive speech began by suggesting the Speaker learn to control his temper). It has long been the view of this site, which we restated this morning, that someone who has lost the trust of one side of the House, and who is no longer seen to be genuinely non-partisan, cannot do the job. The Speaker is meant to make the Commons run well – as long as he stays, he is dividing it.