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Cameron won't strive to keep Bercow alive

Screen shot 2011-02-26 at 07.53.53

by Paul Goodman

"Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive
Officiously to keep alive."

The Conservative Party didn't want John Bercow as Speaker in the first place.  It wants him even less now, after the Patrick McLoughlin, Simon Burns and Mark Pritchard incidents - not to mention his vexed relationship with Michael Gove. It's hard to assess his current Labour and Liberal Democrat support, but some reports suggest that both parties are tiring of him.  Lindsay Hoyle, the senior Deputy Speaker, would be a popular Labour replacement; the Liberal Democrats have a candidate, Alan Beith; the Tories have Nigel Evans.

Today's Independent carries a story headed "Tory Ministers in secret plot to oust Speaker".  It claims that "senior Ministers" are supporting moves to ensure that, at the start of the next Parliament, the Speaker is elected by secret ballot, as the Deputy Speakers already are.  Greg Knight, a former Deputy Chief Whip, tried to get the Procedure Committee to recommend this change last time round, but the move was blocked.  The paper quotes a current Cabinet Minister as saying:

""We're not going to stand in the way of anyone who wants to change the rules. MPs seem to want to have a go at changing the rules and they will be allowed a free vote. There won't be any whipping. Should John Bercow have been made Speaker? No he should not. Should we make it easier for the Commons to do something? Of course we should."
Much will come down to David Cameron's view.  He doesn't seem to like the Speaker very much, which isn't all that surprising: during the Conservative leadership election, Bercow said that "Eton, hunting, shooting and lunch at Whites" made Cameron the wrong man for the job.  The Speaker was elected after I decided to leave the Commons.  Immediately after the result, I ran into the Tory leader in the Commons corridors.  He looked at me, raised an eyebrow (perhaps both), and said: "You're right to leave."  Then he walked round a corner, before popping his head back, and adding: "You're not, actually."

After the last election, he seems to have decided that moving to oust the Speaker would be viewed by voters as partisan.  Any initiative to turn Bercow out before the next election would require a Commons vote, which would be easier for him to survive than a secret ballot: MPs who'd vote against him in private won't do so in public.  This doesn't reflect well on them, but for better or worse it's a fact of Westminster life.  Furthermore, it would put the Prime Minister on the spot, since he'd be asked whether he supported the move.

A secret ballot after the next election would avoid this inconvenience.  If the Speaker didn't survive one, and Cameron's still Prime Minister, he'd be able to say that while he voted for Bercow, the Commons didn't.  If the Speaker did survive it, but a large number of MPs voted against him - the most likely outcome in such an event - Cameron would be able to say, with a sad shake of the head, that Bercow's position "is now unsustainable".  Which is why I quoted Clough's lines at the start of this piece: the Prime Minister won't help to kill Bercow, but he won't struggle to keep him alive either.

As I've written before, Bercow isn't exactly a bad Speaker.  The changes that he's introduced - or wants to - are for the better.  But he's been dogged from the start by a lack of legitimacy, since one of the two main parties in the Commons didn't want him.  Size, sex, anti-semitism, even Sally: all these are secondary problems for him.  The main one is that the wounds of his gradual and bitter divorce from the Conservative Party have never been healed - injuries that threaten to kill his Commons career, and bring him tumbling down from the Speaker's chair.


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