As General Election season truly gets under way, yesterday the House of Commons saw a different kind of election – that of its new Speaker. Replacing John Bercow – a man who became a synonymous poster-boy for the Pro-Remain Members of the House and somewhat of a Twitter meme phenomenon – is no easy feat. Let’s look at Speakers past and present and work out what the future of this Parliamentary role could look like.
Firstly, what is a Speaker and what do they actually do in Parliament?
I would love to say that the Speaker is just a person that sits in a high chair in the Commons and simply shouts the word ‘order’ in a comical voice, just to make Parliamentary life a little more entertaining. But apparently that’s wrong. Instead, The Speaker is actually the highest authority of the House of Commons and their responsibilities include the chairing of debates, keeping order in the House (something John Bercow did with remarkable flair and volume) and calling Members to speak in instances such as Prime Minister’s Questions.
Although elected from amongst Members of Parliament themselves, once assuming the office of the Speaker, they must give up their own partisan persuasion and loyalties and remain impartial. The role of the Speaker is to represent the Lower Chamber in Parliament, and all those within it, regardless of party politics.
Why did John Bercow leave?
As Speaker, Bercow was quite evidently a polarising figure that pushed the boundaries of acceptability of what the Speaker may or may not be permitted to do. A trait perhaps unsurprising when you consider the ever-increasing chauvinistic and theatrical tendencies of populist political figures both inside and outside of the Westminster political landscape.
Bercow was known initially for his reformist stance and staunch defence of Parliament in scrutinising government action, often putting himself at loggerheads with the Conservative Party for which he had served as an MP prior to election as Speaker. However, his role later came to symbolise a kind of activism that did not sit comfortably with the impartial office he came to embody. His well-known pro-Remain stance over Brexit, led to growing concerns and backlash over his ability to fairly balance the agenda of the government’s Brexit agenda and the concerns of the Opposition parties and their overwhelmingly anti-No Deal sentiment.
This deep insecurity with the former Speaker’s increasingly activist stance has also been surprisingly reflected across party lines, with the Evening Standard reporting that the new Speaker Candidates sought to distance themselves from Bercow’s own brand of impartiality when they made their opening speeches in the contest. Each candidate largely discarded the idea of a paternalistic ‘guardian of the Commons’ who uses their own power and oversight to control Parliamentary proceedings, referring instead to a role of active listening, facilitation of cross-party participation, and a return to more traditional notions of impartial politics.
Finally, and most importantly, who won?
Achieving 325 votes after 3 ballots and several candidate withdrawals in the Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP became the 158th Speaker of the House of Commons.
Serving as a Labour MP for Chorley since 1997, Hoyle came to the role on a promise of promoting the vital impartial role of Speaker and to maintain the public trust in the Parliamentary process, something which is of great value in a time when Parliament has undergone major constitutional threats from the government itself, which have often been spurred on by a deep mistrust and misunderstanding of Parliament and its (sometimes archaic) processes.
In addition, he also pledged to ensure that all Members of Parliament receive the support they are due within the walls of Parliament and without. This is a particualrly salient promise considering the general worry at the number of female MPs set to stand down at the upcoming General Election due to a general climate of fear and targeted abuse that many receive in their role as Members of the House.
It won’t be until after the election where we can see if Sir Lindsay can make good on his promises of a more reserved Mr Speaker, but it will be interesting to see how, indeed if, the role will change, in the wake of John Bercow’s departure. One piece of advice we do have though, Sir Lindsay: get practising your ‘ordeeerrs’.
Words by Joey Lewin