What should be done when a convention breaks down – people talking loudly in cinemas, for example, when the main film is showing; or queue-barging, or men not shaking hands with women (a complaint made by Louise Casey about socially conservative Muslims)? Debate is perennial. The question is also at the heart of discussion about the future of John Bercow.
The convention in the Commons is that the Speaker is acceptable to both sides of the House. The long and short of it is that Bercow is not, despite having some supporters on the Conservative side. As a whole, the Tory benches believe that he favours the Opposition, and was imposed on the Commons by Labour. If you doubt this take, and are content not to seek hard numbers, consider the ovation the Conservatives gave Lindsay Hoyle, the Deputy Speaker, when he stood in for Bercow at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday. And if you insist on looking for figures, cast your mind back to the Tories’ ill-fated attempt to impose a secret ballot on the Speaker’s election during the last Parliament – in effect, a means of getting shot of him. Two hundred and twenty-eight MPs voted for it. Two hunded and two voted against. That former figure contained a majority of Conservative MPs near the fag end of a Parliament when many were absent.
The charges of bullying levelled at Bercow by David Leakey, a former Black Rod, and Angus Sinclair, one of the Speaker’s former private secretaries, may be baseless. But the uncomfortable fact remains that a combination of the rules of Commons and the conventions that apply there leave no adequate means of investigating them, at least under this particular speaker.
Theresa May has suggested that the recently-established inquiry into bullying be widened so that it considers individual allegations. It is hard to see how this will happen. She also said that the House authorities could investigate the claims, which doubtless won’t take place either. Finally, she suggested that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards could launch a probe. Cue radio silence from the Commissioner. A key point here is that much of the internal govenment of the Commons is in the hands of the House of Commons Commission. And who chairs the Commission? The Speaker. It would be grossly unfair to claim that its members simply do what he wants them to do. But there is something very odd about this obscure body, which was the subject of a telling quote from Angela Eagle, buried away in a report on Commons governance from the Commons governance committee which sat during the last Parliament.
“It was always rather a mysterious thing before I got on to it. … I have to say the management and structure of the place has always been rather mysterious. You only get to come across bits of it by accident, and if you are lucky enough to stay here long enough, you then stumble across more of it.”
It will be argued that the internal government of the House is ultimately in the hands not of the Commission but of MPs themselves. And it is significant that the Prime Minister – in yet another signal that Bercow doesn’t have the confidence of one of the two main parties in the Commons – wants the allegations probed. But where does that get anyone? The Speaker is unlikely to select for debate any motion critical of him. He has the power to silence MPs who say things he doesn’t like – as they were reminded recently by his short-tempered verbal assault on Philip Hammond. Maria Miller raised a point of order about the claims in the Commons recently, and got short shrift. The paradox of Tory MPs cheering a Labour MP, Hoyle, because the Labour Party lines up behind a former Conservative MP, Bercow, is a consequence of one of the House’s central conventions, on which it depends for effective governance, no longer operating.