The Liberal Democrats who stood up for John Bercow

I asked the other day why on earth the Liberal Democrats had indulged the Tories’ last minute motion on the re-election of the Speaker which brought this Parliament to a rather undignified end.

We still haven’t had any real justification as to why we allowed this to take that leap from William Hague’s head to Commons Order paper, but I thought that you would be interested to read the Liberal Democrat interventions in the debate, both of which were against the motion.

David Heath’s remarks were very brief but to the point:

Further to the point of order, Mr Speaker. There is, of course, another way. The Leader of the House could withdraw the motion—[Hon. Members: “Withdraw, withdraw.”] I have to say that although I would always support a secret ballot, I very much dislike the way in which this matter has been brought before the House today.

For Duncan Hames, it was all about the potential consequences of such a rule change and how that would affect the balance of power between Speaker, House and the Executive:

I am very grateful to you for calling me, Mr Speaker, not just as a Liberal Democrat but as a Member who had the privilege of joining the House in the most recent intake, in 2010. Since then I have sought to learn a great deal from my colleagues, not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), who has been an inspiration to me in respect of the way I have performed my role.

However, the lesson that I want to share with colleagues today is one that I learned from the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who told the House on another occasion that it owed a great deal to the authority of the Speaker. “The House” means each and every one of us—the legislature that stands up to the Executive—and none more than those of us who may expect to find ourselves from time to time, or even frequently, in a minority, and thus unable to rely on the force of numbers in a majority of Members to get our way. That is a lesson to which I urge my colleagues to pay particular attention.

I am not against secret ballots when choosing someone in an election. Indeed, we have used them many times over the last five years, during the current Parliament. However, the motion refers not to circumstances in which a Speaker has retired, resigned or even died in office, and in which we might choose between candidates—I believe that, in those circumstances, there should be a secret ballot—but to the imposition of a secret ballot when the question under consideration is

“that a former Speaker take the Chair”.

I think that the shadow Leader of the House was right to describe that as a motion of no confidence in the Speaker at the start of a Parliament.

An unforeseen—I think, and hope—potential consequence of the motion would be the fatal wounding of a Speaker, even if that Speaker were to win such a vote of confidence and continue in the Chair. That, I believe, is the gravest danger to Members of this House: to have a weakened Speaker, whoever that might be, at some time in the future. There may come a time, Mr Speaker, when you, or indeed your successors, will need to call it a day. If the House were to decide as much, and if there were to be a kill, let it be a clean kill. We would all regret a fatal wounding of the Speaker that left ordinary Back Benchers vulnerable to the power of the Executive.

As Members well know, Mr Speaker, you have not always had your way during this Parliament, particularly in relation to the question of the future of the Clerk of the House; but when you did not have your way—when

you did not have the support of the House—you were very gracious in recognising that, and accepting the will of the House. I urge the Leader of the House today to show an equally gracious attitude to the will of the House, and to withdraw the motion.

In the end, only 14 Liberal Democrats voted in the debate. .  With such short notice, it would have been tough for many to get back from their far flung constituencies. It was a free vote.  Four, Tom Brake, John Thurso, Ed Davey and Don Foster voted in favour and ten, Jo Swinson, Malcolm Bruce, Duncan Hames, David Heath, Stephen Williams, Lorely Burt, Martin Horwood, Dan Rogerson, Sir Bob Russell and Simon Wright, voted against.

You can read the whole debate here.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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10 Comments

  • Peter Hayes 28th Mar '15 - 8:48pm

    I can accept a secret vote for electing a Speaker is right because, unfortunately, people are fallible and a Speaker might remember those who had another preference. This case is different, the Tory motion was to allow those who could not recognise the difference between independence and bias which they expected from an MP who was elected as a Conservative to get him out on a secret vote. Happy to see my MP Martin voted the right way.

  • Tony Dawson 28th Mar '15 - 9:30pm

    This was a very difficult matter. A lot of people think that bercow has been a disgrace as a Speaker in a number of ways and ought to go. On the other hand, there is a serious constitutional issue concerning the Executive effectively taking the power to remove a Speaker. I feel that a secret ballot would temper this notional power of the Executive. We should also do away with the ‘Speaker seeking re-election’ and require all MPs to stand for election properly if they want to remain in Parliament.

  • Tony, Bercow has been very mixed as Speaker.
    He has tended to call some regulars too often and has not properly adjusted to Coalition. And I think the praise he gets for the things he has done may have gone to his head.
    He is immeasurably better than his predecessor and better than the one before that. He has done some reform and sounds irritated that the further reforms seem to have been blocked. He also appears to like the flummery. And the oldfashioned procedures of the House.
    Very mixed record. On balance worth keeping. Good outweighs bad, but only just.
    I saw Duncan’s speech and liked it. But the people who, in different capacities have had most to do with Bercow had the most unease. I hope Bercow will see the shot across his bows and adjust accordingly. I am not sure he will but if he lives up to Duncan’s expectation I would be content.
    It was the way it was done that killed it off. I would have voted with Duncan, Jo and co – but only just.

  • Sadie Smith 29th Mar ’15 – 12:08pm
    “.. He has done some reform and sounds irritated that the further reforms seem to have been blocked. He also appears to like the flummery. And the oldfashioned procedures of the House.”

    As so often, Sadie is right. We should keep this speaker but get shot of all he useless flummery and eighteenth century nonsense.

    If I hear a Liberal Democrat refer to some appalling reactionary Tory as “My Honourable Friend” it turns my stomach.

  • Denis Loretto 29th Mar '15 - 2:47pm

    To sully the last day of what has been (whether you like what it has achieved or not ) an absolutely historic coalition government with a mean-minded and tawdry exercise like this – and then lose it – is utterly disgraceful. I am ashamed to hear that any of our Lib Dem members went along with it. That is the important point – not the polite debate in this thread about the merits or demerits of the current Speaker.

  • jedibeeftrix 30th Mar '15 - 10:17am

    But simon, that is not the lib-dem way.

    Perpetual tinkering is de-rigeur, where iconoclastic demolition of institutions is not the order of the day.

    Look to john’s example above; tear it up and knock it down, its very age is a repressive force crippling true liberal expression!

  • Helen Stevens 30th Mar '15 - 5:17pm

    I am with Caractacus on this one. I am mystified that it is possible to make any arguments stand up for a secret ballot in any circumstances for MPs. If they are not brave enough to publicly justify the way they have voted then what on earth are they doing putting themselves up for election in the first place.

  • Steven Rhodes 9th Jul '15 - 5:20pm

    Well, Mr Bercow has astonished us with his ingratitude. His slap-down of Greg Mulholland yesterday was something he would not have dared attempt with a front-bencher from Tories/Labour/SNP. View the footage and it is clear he is trying to get other MPs on-side with a little bit of bullying. And Mr Mulholland’s question was hardly War and Peace, he was setting out the narrative which was key to the question (and he was shorter than Bercow’s own rant). I used to think Bercow was a reformer, I’m no longer so sure.

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