The Speaker of the UK House of Commons used to be hardly known outside Westminster, but that has changed radically in recent years, first with the advent of televised proceedings and now with the role the current occupant, John Bercow, has played in the debate over Brexit.
Now that Mr Bercow has stepped down, we must ask if the position has become irretrievably politicised. Do we need to reform it so that future Speakers are more accountable for the considerable powers they exercise?
As chairman of the Commons constitutional affairs committee, I will be asking it to consider this as a matter of urgency before the House chooses a new Speaker in a matter of weeks.
Historically, the Speaker was appointed to be a consensual figure who abjured partisanship and aimed to command universal trust and respect across the House for fairness and impartiality.
Television gave the position vast influence outside Westminster and has changed the nature of the office. It is much more high profile. The process of appointing a new Speaker is now openly contested, and large numbers of MPs end up voting on party lines. This was especially true after the 2009 resignation of Michael Martin. The present Speaker was first elected as a Conservative MP, but is now far more popular with the opposition.
The Speaker’s role, when the prime minister commands a majority, was traditionally to ensure that the minority (usually the opposition) got a fair crack.
Many of the present strains on the UK system stem from having a hung parliament, both after the 2010 election and currently. The first led to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and the passage of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which limits Boris Johnson’s ability to call an election now that he has lost his majority.
Brexit has added to the problem, because the popular vote to leave the EU contrasts with the substantial majority of MPs who voted Remain. That means the traditional legitimacy of MPs as representatives of their constituents is challenged by the rival legitimacy of the referendum result.
In principle, the Speaker should remain scrupulously impartial, but it is widely understood that Mr Bercow is anti-Brexit, an opinion he can indulge in the knowledge that the Remain majority in parliament will support his actions.
Mr Bercow has done many good and new things as Speaker, but we have also seen how much discretionary power is at his disposal. There is nothing to check a Speaker who decides to alter the intended meaning of a standing order, or to set aside the accepted constitutional conventions of the Commons. He seems to relish controversy.
The enforcement of the law is properly a matter for the courts, not for the Speaker, but he lectures the prime minister about “not obeying the law”. He says this would be a “terrible example to set to the rest of society” and that it is “astonishing” that “anyone has even entertained the notion”. This contrasts with his own attitude to the law of parliament. It is widely believed that he has disregarded the advice of the clerk of the House, in favour of what he calls “additional procedural creativity”, and makes clear “the limitations of the existing rule book” will not stop him from doing as he pleases.
I will propose to my committee that we explore whether checks and balances could be introduced to restore and to reinforce impartiality. We will ask what restraining or oversight role could the three separately elected deputy Speakers play. Should the Speakership be limited to one or two parliaments, as it generally is in Canada?
We could consider changing the election method to require the Speaker to obtain substantial support from MPs of all opinions, rather than just a simple majority. Alternatively, we could adopt the model of the US House of Representatives, where the Speaker is a creature of the majority, or that of Australia, where the Speaker remains in his or her political party, but is still expected to act impartially.
It is also time to ask whether the Speaker should continue to chair the House of Commons Commission, which is the statutory body responsible for the administration of the House and employs the staff. The current commission has failed to implement the recommendations of Laura Cox’s report into the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff nearly a year after it was published. Nor have the allegations made against Mr Bercow, which he denies, been investigated.
It is one thing for a neutral and impartial individual to hold such power, but it is reasonable to ask what consequences might arise, when the office-holder is restrained only by the need to retain the support of a majority of MPs. No modern office would be designed in such a way today. No Speaker should have untrammelled power to conduct their own majoritarian dictatorship.
The writer, a Conservative MP, chairs the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee. He writes in a personal capacity