Why have Liberal Democrats indulged the Tories’ Bercow bashing?

By any standards, the last minute motion to change the rules on Speaker election is pure bad manners. Filed with less than a day’s notice when many MPs will already have left Westminster, it asks MPs to approve a secret ballot on the re-election of the Speaker. Up until now, MPs have voted in the traditional manner. The election of a Speaker when there is a vacancy is already conducted by secret ballot.

The actual proposal itself is not unreasonable, for consistency’s sake and was recommended by the Commons Procedure Committee as the Guardian article linked to above says:

Tory and Lib Dem sources rejected Labour claims they had acted in an underhand way. They said they were following the convention of allowing MPs to vote on the recommendations of the procedure committee. But Nick Clegg, who is spending the day in his Sheffield Hallam constituency after his weekly LBC phone-in, will not be present for the vote.

So when did the Procedure Committee make that recommendation? I looked through their recent report which suggested revisions to Commons standing orders and it wasn’t in there. There was stuff about elections and by-elections for Deputy Speakers and even a change in lunch breaks on Thursdays in public bill committees (up till now the poor little loves might go hungry – how cruel), but nothing about Speaker elections or re-elections. You have to go back almost five years, to 2010, to find that recommendation. There has been more than enough time to have that vote, so why leave it till the last possible moment?

While I understand that the principle of the vote is a sound one, the way it has been managed looks more like Tory Bercow bashing than actually giving Parliament a say. The Tories don’t like him and many want rid of him. I’m at a bit of a loss as to why the Liberal Democrats had to enable this bit of parliamentary theatre.

I’m fairly lukewarm about Bercow. He has done much to give backbenchers more rights but he has been all mouth and little action in terms of making the Commons a more grown up place to be. Until a Speaker starts chucking folk out when they behave like toddlers, nothing will change. He should spend less time formulating witty rebukes and more time doing something that will work. However, like any rule to do with elections, this shouldn’t be about personalities, this should be about a fair process. I don’t like the way that this motion has been brought and it’s not a good note on which to bring this Parliament to an end.

I was, however, quite amused by the way that this tweet brought together three of yesterday’s stories. What a mind-boggling thought.

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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Parliament.


  • ‘Tory and Lib Dem sources rejected Labour claims they had acted in an underhand way. They said they were following the convention of allowing MPs to vote on the recommendations of the procedure committee.’

    In fact it was reported on Radio 4 News this morning that the procedure committee made no such recommendation.

  • Nick Barlow 26th Mar ’15 – 10:00am Regardless of the argument, the whole process is incredibly dodgy, and such a horrendous stitch up, we shouldn’t be supporting it.

    Sadly, it seems we already are!

  • Simon McGrath 26th Mar '15 - 10:35am

    Of course LDs should be in favour of a secret ballot to elect the speaker.
    Why is is done like this – for exactly the same reason a secret ballot is needed – because otherwise MPs will be concerned Bercow will get their revenge on them if they vote against him.

  • It does seem like a grubby Conservative attempt to stitch up one of its unfavoured sons. The Guardian says we agreed with it. Did we? And if so why did we get involved? Will anyone own up to their involvement?

  • Come on, Lib Dem MPs, this is the perfect time to give the Tories a parting kick in the nethers.

  • It’s shabby politics of the worst kind.

    The Tory Chief Whip (no friend of Bercow) has issued a three line whip for a briefing by their election adviser ensuring most Tories will be there. It was only announced after many opposition MP’s had already left for their constituencies. In short it feels like an attempt to rig the vote (or of course waste huge amounts of public money paying for the absentee MP’s to return).

    The fact the Lib Dems have agreed to this, and defended it, is very worrying, democracy should not be about winning by ensuring your opponents are not able to vote. Any change like this should be properly debated at a time when the majority of the House could attend. It looks very much like the Coalition want to bully their way to their preferred option in what should be a free vote.

    If this had been done by Labour there would have rightly been an outcry by the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party, it feels just like one of Blair’s authoritarian moves,

  • Bercow stuffed himself by stuffing Danny’s alternative budget – his intervention turned the media portrayal against it and led to weekend of abuse about it – that’s why we’ve decided to do him over.

    Bercow hasn’t made Parliament a more coalition friendly place – its hard for us to get our point across and expect the danny debacle was the final straw for the upper echelon.

    Finally I think a lot of MPs like Lindsey Hoyle who seems competent and affable.

  • @rob
    “Bercow stuffed himself by stuffing Danny’s alternative budget ”

    Actually I’m surprised he allowed a blatantly party political action to be badly disguised as part of a Government Minister’s statement. It was the wrong forum for the alternative budget (most of which I approve of).

  • rob 26th Mar ’15 – 11:35am……..Bercow stuffed himself by stuffing Danny’s alternative budget – his intervention turned the media portrayal against it and led to weekend of abuse about it – that’s why we’ve decided to do him over.

    That sounds like a quote from a “Bullingdon Club” meeting…Danny’s alternative budget was an abuse of parliamentary rules; blaming the media is, sadly, becoming second nature to us….

    If “doing him over” is what we’ve descended to then where has the ‘Party of Principles’ gone?

  • Simon McGrath 26th Mar '15 - 12:39pm

    @Nick barlow – “should all votes in Parliament be by secret ballot ? ”
    No , but since those on Committe chairs and the deputy speakers already are can you explain why you think the vote for speaker should be different?

  • Kevin McGuire has tweeted an email written by Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East. The anger felt even by some Tory MPs is palpable.

  • Stephen Hesketh 26th Mar '15 - 12:54pm

    David Evans26th Mar ’15 – 10:35am
    “It does seem like a grubby Conservative attempt to stitch up one of its unfavoured sons. The Guardian says we agreed with it. Did we? And if so why did we get involved? Will anyone own up to their involvement?”

    Indeed David.

    Another open goal for Labour and their ConDem narrative.

  • I think some Lib Dems in good faith see the coalition as single government and don’t always differentiate between a sound decision for the Lib Dems and what suits the Conservatives, This close to an election it shouldn’t be happening.

  • @Simon McGrath
    There are benefits in both open and secret ballots, but that is not the point. The point is that if there is to be a change in the running of the House, its Members should have adequate opportunity to scrutinise the proposed change and adequate notice to ensure they are in attendance to vote on it. This has been designed to bypass democracy, the report has been in existence for years, if it was that important it should have been voted on previously, as it was not it should fall to the next Parliament.

  • Wow the arguments on here all seem to focus on the fact the Tories want this rather than the arguments for and against.

    Hatred is not a friend of logic.

    There are two types of pressures on MPs Internal parliamentary pressure (whips, colleagues, current position holders) and external pressures (voters). We want external pressure acting on MPs but to minimise internal pressure.

    Nick Barlow
    “should all votes in Parliament be by secret ballot”

    No, as votes that relate to the matter of law and policy are appropriate to be available to the public and the public will judge their MPs on that basis. The Idea to maximise the external pressure to influence the decisions, the constituents care about these decisions.

    As Simon McGrath points out deputy speakers and committee chairs are secret ballots, this is intended to allow the functional votes to be taken with minimal internal pressure (speaker/deputy/committee chairs themselves) being used. In general the public don’t care about these internal process matters so the internal pressure is greater than the external so secret ballots make sense.

    There are arguments for the speaker to be public ballot, so when a speaker is opposing transparency (like Michel Martin did) the public know who is propping them up. On balance though most of the time the internal pressures on the votes for the functional positions will be greater than the external pressure so they should be secret ballot.

    The way it has come about looks bad and I’m not a fan of these last minute deals, but the idea is sound. If people oppose an idea just because the Tories are in favour, ask yourself where the boundary is where you would apply that logic? If the Tories had a sudden conversion to STV would you switch to opposing it?

  • Government defeated despite Gove’s alleged non whipping…

    Charles Walker’s speech said everything that was needed to be known about the Governments reasoning – and he chaired the relevant committee and was not informed about the motion in advance. This was personal, petty and an attempt to abuse process.

    Good on David Heath for calling for a withdrawal.

    This should have been properly debated not used as a political tool…..

  • I suspect the Lib Dems have agreed because of what happened to Danny. Utterly shabby. There may well be good reason to change things but it should be done when most MPs are about to vote and come to a considered decision.

    The budget stunt was ridiculous and should never have been done from the government benches. Perhaps the Lib Dem leadership feels bitter about where things are going but blaming Bercow is absurd. Anyone else feel Nick’s comments about being more anti-establishment now than he was in 2010 feel a bit hollow. Presumably a government patsy as speaker would be more convenient.

  • Josh Townsley 26th Mar '15 - 1:59pm

    Quite a good summary by Phil Cowley at Nottingham University on the vote today: http://nottspolitics.org/2015/03/26/the-bercow-coup/

  • Extract from Charles Walker’s speech…


  • Commons update – Very, very passionate speech from the Chair of the Procedure Committee (Con), who spoke about how he’d tried to get this reform debated properly, and been repeatedly knocked back.

    He’d attended Hague’s leaving drinks; spoken to him, his deputy, his Special Adviser and the Chief Whip over the past couple of days. NONE of them told him they were going to take the debate he’d been knocked back on repeatedly, and try to push them through in this dishonest way.

    “I’ve been played as a fool…and when I go home tonight, I can look in the mirror tomorrow and see an honorable fool looking back at me…but I’d rather be an honorable fool than a clever man”

    Thank goodness parliamentary Integrity is not dead (just a little wounded)….. A sad reflection on those Tories and LibDems who acted so shamefully…

  • Psi – please read Steve Way’s excellent remarks. I think people are angry not because of the proposed change but the way the government (not NOT the Tories) have gone about it. Tricking your own MPs into turning up to parliament when you know the opposition benches will be spare is not principled behaviour. It wouldn’t be if it were Labour in government and neither from the ConDems. It may well be that the Lib Dems were just as keen as the Tories on this after Bercow embarrassed Danny over the alternative budget.

    It seems to me to be rather a good thing to have a speaker who embarrasses politicians when they abuse parliament.

  • “But Nick Clegg, [Deputy Prime Minister, Lord President of the Council with special responsibility for political and constitutional reform] is spending the day in his Sheffield Hallam constituency after his weekly LBC phone-in, will not be present for the vote.”

  • Trevor Stables 26th Mar '15 - 2:53pm

    Anyone know how many LDs voted No?

  • Just to state again I’m not sure this is all a Tory plot. Clegg has his reasons for wanting Bercow out and has absented himself from the House for the day. How convenient. People like Caron seem unable to face the rality of the party’s leadership.

  • Delighted this didn’t pass and much amused by Bercow. Also, much credit to Charles Walker, who acted with extreme dignity and honour after the Tories put him in a terrible position.

  • TechnicalEphemera 26th Mar '15 - 7:08pm

    A grubby shambles and as such a fitting full stop for this obscenity of a government to end on.

    The fact that the Lib Dems colluded in an attempt to subvert parliamentary democracy by sneaking a bill through without the opposition being present is deeply shocking. It really sums up how low the party has been brought by Clegg, Laws, Alexander and their mates.

    I fervently hope that after the election the Liberal Democrats boot the Orange bookers and return to their social democratic principles.

  • Tony Greaves 26th Mar '15 - 7:28pm

    What a mess and what a good result. Pity four LDs out of 56 did the wrong thing.

    But putting aside the despicable Tory behaviour on this (what amazing arrogance that they thought they could get away with it!) there is an interesting question about which parliamentary votes should be secret. It is clear that most votes should never be secret – the citizens/electors have a right to know how their representatives vote on their behalf. So just what principles govern the issue of when this very fundamental principle can – or should – be breached?


  • Tony Greaves 26th Mar '15 - 7:30pm

    The Liberal Party was not a social democrat party, it was a radical Liberal party. That is what we must return to.

  • Philip Thomas 26th Mar '15 - 7:42pm

    @Tony But (and it is all a bit before my time) the SDP was a social democrat party? So when the two parties merged, some social democrat elements fused with the radical liberal elements…are you suggesting those elements are expelled? I thought the general objection to current leadership was failure to adhere to social democrat principles…

  • TechnicalEphemera 26th Mar '15 - 8:33pm


    The Liberal Party was indeed a radical liberal party before the foundation of the Liberal Democrats. I think the percentage of the electorate that will vote for such a party probably reflects your current polling. The world has largely moved on from such agendas.

  • Stephen Hesketh 26th Mar '15 - 8:34pm

    Philip Thomas 26th Mar ’15 – 7:42pm

    No Tony, the general objection to current leadership is their failure to properly adhere to any principles.

    That is how we ended up with ‘Equidistance Centrism’ with significant dollops of neo-con economics.

  • Stephen Hesketh 26th Mar '15 - 8:38pm

    Sorry, typo there the noble Lord … that should of course have been addressed to Philip!

    By the way, I stopped being a Libertarian Socialist in 1980-ish because the Liberal Party offered a more radical approach to our problems! The SDP radical? Oh dear.

  • Stephen Hesketh 26th Mar '15 - 8:51pm

    TechnicalEphemera 26th Mar ’15 – 8:33pm
    ” … the percentage of the electorate that will vote for such a party probably reflects your current polling. The world has largely moved on from such agendas.”

    Er No, the current polling reflects Clegg’s and the ‘Orange Bookers’ failure. When we followed a more radical Liberal position we had more voters and MP’s! What is the explanation for the Greens appearing to be doing better?

    Re Moving on – it probably thought it had (or at least the press barons told us things had moved on) but the state Britain and the wider world are in reveals the Radical Liberal agenda was actually right all along. Thatcherism, neo-Conservative economics, a belief in ‘trickle down’ and an ever more powerful and richer elite doesn’t appear to be doing much for the vast majority of our fellow citizens does it?

  • Philip Thomas 26th Mar '15 - 9:19pm

    Perhaps I’m confusing social democrats with social liberals?

  • Stephen Hesketh 26th Mar '15 - 9:48pm

    Philip Thomas 26th Mar ’15 – 9:19pm
    “Perhaps I’m confusing social democrats with social liberals?”

    That is a relief Philip.

    And for my part I would like to add that despite my comments about the SDP, many good people did come across with them. Thankfully though not David Owen.

  • Fiona White 27th Mar '15 - 8:06am

    There is a good argument for having a decent debate on how the Speaker should be re-elected. What made this a grubby exercise is the way it was bounced on MPs at the very end of a parliament, with little warning. It was patently obvious that they were just trying to get rid of Bercow. Having watched part of it, I think it backfired. Even Tories who don’t like Bercow were angry at the process – or lack of it. If the new parliament wants to bring forward a motion with proper notice at a sensible point in the 5 year term, the outcome might well be different. This was a grubby trick.

  • Alisdair McGregor 27th Mar '15 - 9:42am

    I support having a secret ballot for Speaker.

    I’d still have voted against this measure because it’s a grubby misuse of the rules of parliamentary procedure and motivated by spite.

  • Steve Comer 27th Mar '15 - 9:53am

    This shows what happens when people in the Westminster bubble get obsessed about procedural issues that 99% of the electorate do not care about. I’ve seen this on Councils where procedural arguments bout the process for choosing the Lord Mayor can drag on for months and take up a lot of time. In the meantime constituents are asking when the Council will cut the grass in the park or fix the potholes in their street!

    Completely stupid to try to force this through on the last day of Parliament, whatever the irritations about Bercow.
    And as for the Danny budget speech – well that was embarrassing, and you can’t blame the media for taking the pxxx.

    I sense a problem in the structure of the Parliamentary Party in that all the advisers and staff seem to be bright young things fresh out of Universities (and mostly one of two Unis I suspect) who don’t have enough real world experience outside SW1 to spot these elephant traps.
    If they’d had the sense to just pick up the ‘phone and ask someone like Tony Greaves in advance, he’d have probably told them not to be so bloody stupid on both of these stunts!

    I don’t know what the solution is, other to insist that all potential PPCs are given a copy of the “Theory and Practice of Community Politics” and set a written exam and a practical exercise on it during the assessment process!

  • Steve Comer 27th Mar ’15 – 9:53am

    I echo the excellent comment from Steve Comer especially his penultimate sentence.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 27th Mar '15 - 10:25am

    Steve Comer 27th Mar ’15 – 9:53am has most of the answers.
    However, as we might have more coalition governments – proper procedures for presentations by member parties of any coalition should be discussed well in advance.

    Tony Greaves 26th Mar ’15 – 7:30pm I note that Radical Liberalism includes “……autonomy of the individual and favouring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority. Several of these were being dismissed by the “Nasty-Cons” as we should expect.

  • nvelope2003 27th Mar '15 - 6:30pm

    The arguments used against a secret vote are very much the same as those used to try and stop the passing of the Ballot Act 1872. Curious that they are now advanced by those who purport to be on the left but not surprising. The ruling elite do not want their activities subject to criticism and will stop at nothing to deter those who are opposed to them. Look at all those public sector whistle blowers who have been subject to years of abuse and intimidation until they give up despite court rulings in their favour.

    The way this was presented to Parliament was not ideal but the principle was . The Bill of Rights 1689 was passed by the House of Lords because one very fat bishop was counted as 10 by the teller. Should it now be repealed ?
    We do not live in an ideal world and sometimes good things happen in less than ideal circumstances.

  • stuart moran 27th Mar '15 - 7:19pm


    The whole argument was about how this was presented and the fact that the Government didn’t do this to be democratic they did it so they could have the chance to overthrow one particular speaker who they do not like because he has stood up to the shenanigans of the Government

    They had almost 4 years to bring this forward and have it properly debated

    I find it sad that there are, as usual, so many apologists for the Tory Party on these pages

    Imagine this had been a Labour Government who had done this – many Labour voters deserted their party since 1997 because of some of the underhand tactics used during that Government – all of which were condemned by the Lib Dems

    Even now that the Government is essential over some people on here cannot seem to accept the Tory Party for what they are

    I shall be back to gloat on the 8th May but I will enjoy reading the posts on here lamenting the situation and blaming the voters

  • It is not a question of apologising for the Tory party. They behaved disgracefully and like most people who do that they lost, whereas had they behaved in an honourable way they might well have got the secret ballot for the election of the Speaker. I have no problems with Speaker Bercow but there is always the possibility that a future speaker might favour those who supported him and discriminate against those who did not just as the powerful people do in real life. That is why the Ballot Act was passed in 1872. I got the impression that some MPs do not like secret ballots and would only be too glad to get rid of them altogether on the grounds that this would be open and brave democracy ! Only cowards favour secret ballots apparently . All those in favour please show ! And those who are not – what happens to them. I think we know. Well democracy is a bit of a nuisance isn’t it- all those tiresome arguments and discussions. Hmmm

  • stuart moran 28th Mar '15 - 12:03pm


    Set up a nice few straw men there and ignored the main point.

    This was a Tory (with the support of some in the LD) ploy in order to give them an opportunity to unseat a Speaker they do not like! It is the only explanation that explains what went on?

    I suggest you watch the speech from Charles Walker on this subject and also listen to the number of people who said they are in favour, in principle, of secret ballots but who would also like to see the proper process is followed

    Rather a poor attempt at defending the Tory Party

  • Brenda Lana Smith 28th Mar '15 - 12:11pm

    Tony Greaves 26th Mar ’15 – 7:28pm
    What a mess and what a good result. Pity four LDs out of 56 did the wrong thing.


    “Mazel tov!” SpeakerJohn Bercow…

  • Strange indeed.

    I don’t think Clegg knows where the Tories end and the Lib Dems begin anymore.

    It’s like his meek acceptance of Cameron’s ban on his participation in the 16th of April leaders’ debate . ‘Know your place Boy!’

  • nvelope2003 28th Mar '15 - 2:37pm

    Stuart Moran
    I heard the relevant parts of the debate particularly what Charles Walker said which was honourable but possibly naive. I also heard what certain other MPs said and I was not impressed.

    I am happy to be accused of setting up straw men if that is what you wish to do but it is not me who has missed the key point.

    Maybe it would be wise to wait for 8th May before you start gloating or even better stop gloating altogether. It is not a very attractive trait. There are plenty of people who have been thrown out of office for doing the right thing, just as there are those who continually get re-elected whatever they do.

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