The Speaker of the House of Commons is the presiding officer of the House of Commons and responsible for maintaining order and discipline in the chamber. He or she is chosen by the members of the Commons and from time to time it becomes necessary to choose a new one. It therefore came to pass that an election for a new Speaker was held on the 21st June 2009 in order to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of the previous incumbent Michael Martin, who had effectively been obliged to announce his resignation as he faced a motion of no confidence following criticism of his handling of the MPs' Expense Scandal. (Although Martin himself was later to insist that he was the "victim of snobs", and that he could "have survived" had he wanted.)
Indeed given the prominence of the MPs' Expense Scandal, the election for a new Speaker attracted a greater level of attention than normal, given that the Speaker chaired the House of Commons Commission, the body which was responsible for the general administration of the House, including the running of the Fees Office, the department responsible for the payment of expenses to MPs, and therefore might be regarded as having a considerable role to play in whatever the eventual resolution to this great political crisis might be. Indeed, given that the reputation of the average Member of Parliament now stood lower than that of a banker or even an estate agent, it was possible to sympathise with the view expressed by one suitably Conservative MP, who observed in The Times that becoming Speaker in such circumstances would be "like being made garrison commander in Stalingrad in the winter of 1942".
Naturally as soon as it was known that Martin was stepping down, speculation began as to who might replace him. Various names were suggested including those of George Young, Menzies Campbell, Alan Haselhurst and Frank Field. The Times had no hesitation in naming their favourite; "Vincent Cable, your moment has come" they announced as they proclaimed him as "the right man for the job". Vince Cable however announced that he had no intention of standing, as indeed did other fancied runners such as David Davis, Frank Field and Tony Wright.
The first candidate to confirm that they would put their name forwards was the Liberal Democrat Alan Beith, who informed his local newspaper, the Newcastle Journal, of his intention to stand. It soon appeared as if George Young together with the two current Deputy Speakers, Alan Haselhurst and Michael Lord, would also be standing. On the 10th June it became known that former Housing Minister Margaret Becket would also be standing, and following day Ann Widdecombe confirmed that she would be putting her name down, but only as an interim candidate, as she had already decided to leave the Commons at the next General Election.
On the 15th June the Hansard Society hosted a hustings meeting where a field of ten potential candidates were given the opportunity to put their case forward. From the Conservative side there was John Bercow, Patrick Cormack, Alan Haselhurst, Michael Lord, Richard Shepherd, Ann Widdecombe and George Young; whilst on the Labour side there was Margaret Beckett and Parmjit Dhanda, together with Alan Beith for the Liberal Democrats. They were however merely potential candidates, as it remained to be seen how many of them would succeed in obtaining enough support to secure nomination, and in any case hardly any one turned up at the hustings as Gordon Brown was about to make an announcement regarding an inquiry into the Iraq War.
Amongst these names the early favourite was the Conservative John Bercow, with William Hill quoting him as the 6-4 favourite, ahead of Ann Widdecombe on 5-1 and Margaret Beckett on 6-1. Bercow's position as the front runner would have been a surprise to many since not only was Bercow a Conservative but also a former active member of the Monday Club. Over the years however, Bercow had completed a remarkable political journey, transforming himself, as one account put it, from being a "one-time ultra-Rightwing fusilier of the Nelson Mandela-taunting brigade" into the "ostentatious and gloopy champion of ... all things politically correct". His campaign manager was Martin Salter, the Labour member for Reading West, and most of his support was said to come from Labour bankbenchers, with very little coming from the ranks of his own party. Opinion appeared to be divided over Bercow's merits; Tony Benn felt that Bercow would be a "strong, reforming and independent Speaker" and wrote to The Times to tell everybody so, whilst on the other hand the journalist Quentin Letts described Bercow as a "shameless, bumptious, expenses-fiddling greaser"
The enthusiasm for Bercow that came from within the ranks of the Labour Party naturally demanded an explanation. It was said by some that it was explained by the fact that he was the one Conservative who would piss off David Cameron more than anybody else. Others however claimed that it was down to research carried out in focus groups which had shown that Labour was suffering the greatest damage from the MPs' expenses scandal simply because people believed that Parliament was controlled by Labour. It had therefore been concluded that the "best way to challenge this perception" was to have a Conservative as Speaker, or at least that was what the "diehard Brownite" member for Dudley North, one Ian Austin told The Times.
The other candidates included George Young, the 'bicycling Baronet' and chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, and possibly the best qualified of all the candidates. Unfortunately he'd been educated at Eton College, which counted against him in Labour circles; particularly since it seemed all too likely that the nation would also have an Eton educated Prime Minister before too long. Alan Beith was the former deputy leader Liberal Democrat, now chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, with thirty years worth of Parliamentary experience under his belt. Unfortunately he was a Liberal Democrat and therefore had the disadvantage of a somewhat restricted home constituency.
The batch of Conservative hopefuls included Alan Haselhurst and Michael Lord, both of whom had served as deputy speakers since 1997, and could therefore at least claim that they had some idea of what the job involved; Richard Shepherd, a former "Parliamentarian of the Year" and one of the Maastricht rebels that once made life so difficult for John Major; and Patrick Cormack, described by the Daily Telegraph as "one of the grandest examples of the old-school Tory to be found on the opposition benches".
On the Labour side there was Margaret Beckett who had been the Minister of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government with responsibility for Housing and Planning right up until the 10th June 2009 when she decided to leave Government after Gordon Brown had declined to restore her to the Cabinet and stand as Speaker. Whilst Beckett might have been expected to have attracted the support of bulk of the Labour Party, the fact that she had spent the past decade or so in Government counted against her, whilst she had also attracted some flak for claiming £600 for hanging baskets and pot plants on her expenses. Her fellow prospective candidate from the Government benches was Parmjit Dhanda who, at thirty-seven, was the youngest candidate. He was not an "obvious choice" as he admitted himself, and was presumably more interested in putting a marker down for the future rather than winning this time round.
The Candidates' Expenses
Given the level of public concern that had been expressed over the previous few weeks regarding the question of expenses claimed by Members of Parliament, naturally the question arose as to how these ten members had fared in submitting their own expense claims over the years.
Of course, whilst the House of Commons had indeed published details of all MPs' expenses on the 19th June, they were heavily redacted, and so on the 20th June The Times decided to ask each of the candidates for Speaker whether they would be willing to produce unredacted expenses. Beckett was the only candidate that "failed to respond to repeated requests" as all the other candidates agreed that they would, with the exception of Ann Widdecombe who declined to do so in order to "protect her staff", but would answer any questions about redacted areas. The Times broadly hinted that Beckett's reluctance was to be explained by the fact that certain "embarrassing details" had been "censored" from Beckett's expenses claims.
The Sunday Telegraph, which of course had access to the unredacted files, was able to confirm that these "embarrassing details" related to the £11,000 that Beckett had spent on gardening at her second home. The paper also took the opportunity to review the claims made by other candidates, and so happily reported that John Bercow had charged taxpayers for the cost of paying an accountant to complete his tax return in both 2007 and 2008; that Alan Beith had used his office expenses to pay for his secretary to spend a month in his constituency during the 2005 general election campaign; that Patrick Cormack had claimed for part of the cost of running his main home on the basis that he used it as his constituency office; Alan Haselhurst had also charged £14,000 over the years for the cost of maintaining the garden at his house in Essex, and had also had a bit of an argument with the Parliamentary fees office back in March 2006; that George Young had billed taxpayers for the cost of a video camera, which he used to record clips of himself to broadcast on George Young's Channel at YouTube, and had claimed more than £4,000 in expenses to advertise in parish magazines in his constituency; and that Anne Widdecombe had charged £9,000 for a newspaper cuttings service which had collating references to herself in the press.
All of which might have meant something or perhaps nothing at all to the general public, but scarcely mattered on one level, since they had no say in the matter. The decision rested purely with the members of the Commons, and if the press reports over the weekend of the 19th and 20th June were to be believed it appeared that Beckett had overtaken Bercow as the favourite to win the contest. The Times claimed to have learnt that the Government Chief Whip Nick Brown had been canvassing Conservative MPs on her behalf, and according to the Independent on Sunday there was a "secret shadow whipping operation" under way to convince Labour backbenchers they should support a member of their own party. By the Monday, most of the media reported the comments made by Stephen Pound, the Labour member for Ealing North, who was complaining that Government whips were "touting Margaret Beckett" and said that they should "stop doing it".
This resulted in headlines such as 'Brown in row over secret bid to install Beckett as Speaker' (Daily Telegraph), 'Labour's 'covert effort' to ensure Beckett win' (The Independent), and 'Labour accused of secret plot to make Beckett next Speaker' (The Times). It might have appeared that The Guardian saw things differently as it ran the headline 'Tories plot to elect George Young as Speaker'. It turned out however that the Guardian story simply confirmed what all the other papers were saying, spiced up with the additional claim that there was a "last-minute plot" being hatched by Conservatives to vote for Becket until Bercow was eliminated and then switch their support to Young.
According to one Conservative source there was "no doubt" there was "an operation under way for Beckett" and that "Our whips have been told to stay out of it, but there's no such restraint on the other side". However although Labour sources confirmed there had been promises of support from Conservative whips for Beckett, they blamed it all on a certain John Spellar, the Labour member for Warley. All of which was regarded as slightly scandalous, since the office of Speaker was supposed to be politically impartial, and thus the election was also supposed to be a non-partisan contest in which the best candidate was selected irrespective of party. Harriet Harman was thus forced to put in a public appearance to strenuously deny that the Government was supporting Beckett and insist that there was no covert whipping operation underway.
The Election for Speaker
The election of Michael Martin as Speaker in 2000 had taken place not without a certain amount of criticism. Which was to say that a number of Labour MPs complained that their arms had been twisted to support Martin, whilst there were also said to have been "farcical scenes" during the course of the election. This was largely explained by the rather antiquated electoral process that consisted of the House voting on a succession of amendments to a motion that pitted each of the thirteen candidates against each other. Oddly enough, since Martin was one of the first two names out of the hat, it turned out to be a series of votes in which the eventual victor was pitted against all the other twelve candidates in turn, with Martin coming out ahead each time, with the closest being George Young who received 241 votes to Martin's 317.
It was therefore decided that any future election would be held under a new Exhaustive Ballot system. Each candidate was required to be nominated by at least twelve other members, of whom at least three needed to be of a different party from that of the candidate. Nominations were required to be submitted between the hours of 9.30 am and 10.30 am on the day after the vacancy arose, after which the candidates would then address the Commons at 2.30 pm, with lots being drawn to determine the order in which they spoke, with a half an hour then set aside to complete the voting.
A successful candidate required an absolute majority of the votes cast, and if no candidate succeeded in obtaining such a majority during the first round of voting, then the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated, together with those that failed to attract 5% of the votes cast, followed by a second round of voting, and so on until one candidate did achieve an absolute majority. However the most significant change was that voting would now be by secret ballot, thereby minimising the potential of any behind-the-scenes arm twisting.
Before one o'clock on the 22nd June 2009 the news arrived that all ten hopefuls had received the necessary nominations, as the BBC reported that Ladbrokes had Beckett as the favourite at 2/1, whilst William Hill had George Young out in front at 7/4; a Although both bookmakers agreed that Bercow was now running in third place. Indeed the media paid a good deal of attention to what the bookmakers were saying, if only because a number of MPs were said to have 'cleaned up' last time round by placing large bets on Martin at the last minute whilst, of course, in the absence of any opinion polls, it was the only guide they had as to the likely victor.
As Father of the House it fell to Alan John Williams, the Labour member for Swansea West, to preside over the election for the new Speaker, and after each candidate had been given the opportunity to deliver a short five to ten minute address to the House, the first vote was under way by 3.50 pm. The result came through shortly before 17.15 pm, with 594 votes cast including one spoiled ballot. John Bercow came out on top with 179 votes, George Young was second with 112 votes, whilst Margaret Beckett was third with 74 votes, ahead of Alan Haselhurst (on 66 votes), Alan Beith (55), Anne Widdecombe (44), Parmjit Dhanda (26), Richard Shepherd (15), Patrick Cormack (13) and Michael Lord (9). Lord was therefore eliminated from the contest as he had the fewest votes, whilst Cormack, Dhanda and Shepherd were also out because they had obtained less than 5% of the vote, leaving six candidates to go forward to the second ballot.
The immediate reaction was that Beckett had blown it, as William Hill issued a press release declaring Bercow to be the even money favourite. It seemed most likely that it would be a run-off between Bercow and Young, and the only question was whether any of the other four candidates would succeed in attracting enough extra votes in the second round to make it worthwhile continuing the fight.
At 5.41 pm the division bell rang to signal the beginning of round two, and by 7.05 pm the results were announced. There were 599 votes cast in the second round, still with one spoilt ballot; John Bercow was now 42 votes up at 221, and George Young had narrowed the gap by adding 62 votes to reach 174. Margaret Beckett however, had dropped 4 votes to 70, as the other three remaining candidates also went backwards with Alan Haselhurst receiving 57 votes, Alan Beith 44, and Anne Widdecombe only 30. Widdecombe was duly eliminated, whilst both Beith and Haselhurst decided to withdraw, as indeed did Beckett. The third round and final round therefore became a straight fight between Bercow and Young. Voting began at 7.20 pm, and the final result came through at 8.30pm with Bercow emerging as the winner with 322 votes against 271 for Young. Once again George Young had to be content with being the runner-up.
However whilst Bercow might have been elected as the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons, how long he would succeed in occupying the Speaker's Chair was another matter altogether. Even before the election had taken place, some Conservative MPs such as Douglas Carswell (who even voted for Bercow in the final round) were making remarks such as "Every new parliament should elect its speaker by secret ballot", which suggested that the question of who should be Speaker might be revisited if and when a future General Election returned a Conservative majority in the House of Commons, and one anonymous Conservative frontbencher even went so far as to say that, "If Bercow thinks he'll be re-elected unopposed once we have a majority in the Commons he's got another thing coming".
As far as the former speaker Michael Martin was concerned, HM Treasury took advantage of the hiatus over the election of his replacement to slip out the announcement that Martin had been appointed Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. Or to put it another way, Martin had stepped down as an MP and there would be a by-election at Glasgow North-East in due course.
P.S. Quentin Letts almost had a heart attack in the Daily Mail; "Impossible! They voted for someone worse than Gorbals Mick!"
- Election of a new Speaker
- Speaker: Runners and riders, BBC News, 19 May 2009
- How will new Speaker be chosen?, BBC News, 19 May 2009
- Sam Coates, Race to succeed Speaker forced from office begins in earnest, The Times, May 20, 2009
- Michael Savage and Nigel Morris, Race for Speaker's chair turns dirty as rivals round on Bercow, The Independent, 16 June 2009
- Andrew Gimson, Candidates make case for role of Commons Speaker, Daily Telegraph, 15 Jun 2009
- Allegra Stratton and Anne Perkins, Speaker candidates call for end to prime minister's questions, The Guardian, 15 June 2009
- Quentin Letts, God help us (etc), Daily Mail, 17th June 2009
- Patrick Hennessy, Patrick Sawer, Jasper Copping and Alastair Jamieson,
MPs' expenses: Secrets of MPs bidding to lead Commons, Daily Telegraph, 20 Jun 2009
- Patrick Hennessy, Commons' Speaker: Q & A, 21 Jun 2009
- Robert Winnett and James Kirkup, Brown in row over secret bid to install Beckett as Speaker, Daily Telegraph, 21 Jun 2009
- Race for the Speaker's chair: candidate odds, Daily Telegraph, 22 Jun 2009
- Andrew Sparrow, Commons Speaker contest: election day blog - live, The Guardian, 22 June 2009