Why John Bercow is the right choice for Speaker
Next Monday will see a very important moment for the House of Commons as it elects a new Speaker to replace Michael Martin, who had become discredited on a number of counts over the past few years and announced his intention to resign last month - and not before time.
And I write the following post today knowing that - based on previous comments made on the site - many readers will profoundly disagree with the case I am making, but I reserve the right to make it and hope you will give me a hearing (and I do so full in the knowledge that Tim begs to differ from my view as well!).
It was eighteen months ago that I first suggested that John Bercow was the dark horse in the race to be the next Speaker, in a blog post I wrote in January 2008 when I was still at the Daily Telegraph.
And at the end of last year, I declared publicly for the first time that I favoured the Buckingham MP as my personal choice to take the Speaker's chair when the moment came to replace Michael Martin.
So it is hardly a surprise that I remain a supporter of his today, but I feel that I should expand on my reasoning as the contest approaches (The Independent's Steve Richards has also written today on the case for Speaker Bercow).
I should begin by freely admitting that there is an element of personal loyalty: John has been a friend for over a decade and in politics, as in all walks of life, personal friendships count (although, that said, I am on friendly terms with several of the other candidates too - and not all of them are Conservatives).
But by far the most important reason is that John Bercow is a parliamentarian to his fingertips, a real House of Commons man, and that is, I believe, the most essential quality required in a Speaker.
On his election to the Commons in 1997, he immediately became an assiduous attender of question time every day and has remained committed to the using the parliamentary processes of debate and questions - oral and written - to probe and question the government, to act as an advocate for the causes in which he believes, and to represent the voters of Buckingham, who have returned him to Parliament with an increased majority at each election he has fought.
In the statement in which he sets out his stall for the Speakership, he highlights his desire to strengthen the role of the legislature in holding the executive to account, something with which few could surely disagree.
In an age where we have become all too used to a Government bypassing Parliament when it comes to making statements and failing to give the Commons adequate time for scrutiny of bills, it is absolutely vital that there is, as he states, "radical reform" in the way the Commons operates, with more power being given to backbench MPs.
Among his proposals which I find especially commendable are the following:
- Creating a Business Committee with a backbench majority to control much of the parliamentary timetable (rather than the Government controlling the timetable);
- Giving the Speaker the formal power to demand a minister come to the Despatch Box to make a statement;
- Electing Select Committee chairmen by secret ballot (rather than the whips stitching up such appointments);
- More scrutiny by Parliament of legislation emanating from the European Union;
- Extending the opportunities for topical debates.
John Bercow's detractors inside the Conservative Party attack him for having shifted his political viewpoints in a Leftward or socially liberal direction during his political career. That is clearly a matter of fact - but not one which should affect the outcome of the election for Speaker.
At the end of the day, the Speaker is per se above party politics and whatever were the successful candidate's previously stated views were on the tax burden, abortion, or gay adoption, for instance, is wholly irrelevant.
I also understand why on a partisan level many Conservatives feel disappointment, anger or even betrayal at the way that John has spoken out against Conservative policy on certain issues in recent years (and I have berated him myself when I have disagreed with him). But such matters should have no bearing on who will make the best Speaker.
I challenge any of those who object to some of the stances he has taken on political matters to take issue with the agenda on which he is running for the Speakership, as embodied by those five points I have highlighted above.
Another argument dragged out by some Tories briefing against him is that he does not have enough experience in the Commons to be Speaker. All I would say to that is this: as Conservatives, we/you are currently working to elect as our next Prime Minister a man who has been in the Commons for four fewer years than John Bercow. If David Cameron has enough experience to be Prime Minister of our country - which I sincerely believe he does - then I'm more than satisfied that John Bercow has sufficient experience to be the next Speaker of the House of Commons.
He believes first and foremost in the integrity of the House of Commons and he would not only be a firm but fair chairman of its proceedings (as he has proven as a regular chairman of standing committees and Westminster Hall debates) but also a fine ambassador for the institution and, in a wider sense, parliamentary democracy. It is certainly absurd to suggest that he would be anything but scrupulously impartial in the job - not least because recent events have shown that MPs would assert their right to challenge any future incumbent seen to be underperforming or bringing the role into disrepute.
John Bercow is a traditionalist in that he is someone who, as Speaker, would uphold the powers of Parliament; but yes, he is also forward-looking in that he comes from a younger generation of MPs which "gets" the power of the 24-hour media and recognises the need for urgent action to restore Parliament's reputation among the wider public.
I wholeheartedly commend his candidacy for the Speakership.