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Mr Speaker's war against Anna Soubry

By Matthew Barrett
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One of the ways in which John Bercow annoys Conservatives is his enthusiasm for castigating backbench Tory MPs in front of the House. His critics would concede that he often has valid grounds for intervening in principle, but take issue with the strength of his criticism, and the fact that he so often interrupts the flow of debate in order to make his points.

Soubry AnnaA particularly severe example of this kind of strong intervention came yesterday when Mr Bercow felt the need to reprimand Anna Soubry, a junior Minister at the Department of Health, not once, not twice, but thrice. Mr Bercow's interventions stretched across more than one debate - he decided to name Soubry during PMQs and during a health debate. It's perhaps worth noting that Soubry was Simon Burns' (with whom Mr Speaker has clashed a number of times) PPS, and still often sits near him during PMQs.

The first intervention, during PMQs, went as follows:

"Ms Harman: The Deputy Prime Minister’s answer has shown that he is completely out of touch, because the reality is that many part-time working parents are having to give up their jobs because of the cuts in tax credit, and having instead to be on benefits. I asked him about the child care element of the tax credit, and he has not answered. Why will he not admit that the cut he voted for has cost families £500, and 44,000 families are losing out? If that was not bad enough, the Government are cutting £1 billion from Sure Start. In his e-mail, he said he would reveal—[ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. The junior Minister in the back row—the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)—thinks her views are relevant, but we are not interested. [ Interruption. ] Order. I do not want heckling. I want the question to be heard, and it will be heard with courtesy. If the session has to be extended for that to happen, so be it."
The second, during a health debate:

"Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may not have been able to catch up with this morning’s Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall, but it is more than “silence from Ministers”. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who responded to the debate, admitted that the Department had known about the south-west cartel when it happened, and that she supported it. [Interruption.]

Andy Burnham: This debate is flushing out the Government’s position, is it not? The Under-Secretary of State keeps heckling from the Front Bench, but we now know—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. [Interruption.] Order. Let me say once and for all to the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has been conducting a running commentary since she sat down on the Front Bench at the start of the debate, “Stop it.” I do not wish to hear it, and neither does the House. The Secretary of State will respond in due course. If the hon. Lady is dissatisfied with what has been said, her right hon. Friend will have a chance to respond. I do not want the sedentary chuntering, the finger-wagging and all the rest of it. The hon. Lady can say “pooh” if she wants, but she will accept the ruling of the Chair, and either behave or get out of the Chamber. I do not mind which it is."

The final intervention:

"Kerry McCarthy: I very much hope that when the Government—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. Let me say to the Minister once and for all—[Interruption.] No. I say to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)—perhaps she will have the courtesy to listen when she is being spoken to from the Chair—that it is not acceptable for any Member of the House to treat the debate as a private conversation between himself or herself and the Member on his or her feet. If the Minister is dissatisfied with what is being said, other people on her Benches can pick up those points. It is totally unacceptable to behave in this way and it will stop straight away. I hope the Whip has noticed it, and I will be speaking to others about the matter."

In all these cases it does seem like Mr Speaker had valid grounds for intervening, but his gratuitous and over-long criticisms may well have alienated another chunk of backbench Tory opinion.

The full Hansard text is here.


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