Five Labour MPs compete to replace Bercow as Commons Speaker

© UK Parliament / Mark Duffy

John Bercow is stepping down as Speaker of the House of Commons at the end of the month – possibly just before a snap election, in the true dramatic fashion we’ve come to expect from Bercow. The race is on to replace him, with MPs set to cast their votes on November 4th.

There are currently nine MPs in the running: Sir Henry Bellingham (Con); Chris Bryant (Lab); Harriet Harman (Lab); Meg Hillier (Lab); Sir Lindsay Hoyle (Lab); Dame Eleanor Laing (Con); Sir Edward Leigh (Con); Shailesh Vara (Con); Dame Rosie Winterton (Lab).

To press the candidates on the most relevant issues to the Speakership, and gain interesting background information on the key differences between them, a hustings was organised for lobby journalists that took place on Wednesday morning.

Here are some of the most important takeaways from the comments made by the five Labour candidates…

Chris Bryant

Pitching himself as the anti-Bercow who would be “an umpire not a player”, he emphasised the importance of impartiality. “In the words of the musical Hamilton, I think the chamber should be the room where it happens,” the MP for Rhondda said. One particular priority he cited was making the parliamentary timetable more predictable, and he argued that “too many” Urgent Questions can make that difficult. He would publish speaker lists to let MPs know when they’d be given the opportunity to intervene in a debate.

As the Labour candidate most outwardly critical of Bercow, Bryant said that the Speaker’s interpretation of the word ‘forthwith’ (which allowed MPs to vote on a particular Brexit amendment in January) was “wrong”. He added: “I hate it when legislation gets through the House in one day.”

Bryant also talked about rudeness. “I hate it when the Speaker is rude,” the Labour MP said, specifically claiming that Michael Martin as Speaker was “phenomenally rude to women”. He suggested several times that the Speaker should “speak less”.

He issued a similarly strong message on the prorogation protests. “I hated every single minute of that night,” he said, on account of the government using prorogation “incorrectly” but also the “chaos in the chamber that didn’t do us any favours”. 

Bryant also said he would…

  • Stop clapping in the chamber: “I hate clapping.”
  • Vote for Rosie Winterton if he were not standing himself.
  • Serve as Speaker for eight years only.
  • Aim to “not have a view” on Brexit by 4th November.

Summing up his pitch, he said: “I love parliament and I want to do things properly.”

Harriet Harman

The Mother of the House reiterated that her ambition in the role would be to champion parliament. She referred several times to a review that would determine how the Commons operates, from imposing time limits on Speaker terms to the length of PMQs to whether clapping in the chamber should be allowed. 

Harman pitched herself as the continuity candidate, saying Bercow was right to allow MPs to take control control of the parliamentary agenda through an ‘SO24’ debate. “It couldn’t be any other way,” she said, as he was expressing “the will of parliament”.

Harman’s local party has passed a motion expressing strong disapproval of her bid to become Speaker. Asked about how her constituents and local members felt about her candidacy, she said: “I’ve been amazed that people in the street have been coming up and saying ‘go for it!’”. She also said there was a recognition that “parliament is no longer an old boys’ club” and electing a woman as Speaker was therefore important.

She also… 

  • Backed an independent complaints system and said staff must have the confidence to bring forward complaints.
  • Said six questions for the leader of the opposition at PMQs was too many, and suggested backbenchers could be granted follow-up questions. 
  • Shared her view that MPs should “demonstrate outside the chamber”, not within it.
  • Criticised “finger jabbing” in the chamber. “The public don’t buy that it’s a genuine expression of anger.”
  • Claimed “there is a drink problem” in parliament, which she would want to deal with – though would not get rid of bars on the estate.

In her conclusion, Harman said it is a “tough time for parliament” and the Speaker is a “tough job” that needed someone “of proven resilience and experience” and a “proven reformer”.

Meg Hillier

The MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch made her selling point clear with a focus on tackling bullying and sexual harassment in parliament. On an independent complaints system, she said it was needed but “not enough” as a culture shift was also necessary. She told us she wanted to see parliament “opened up” and to “make it clearer what’s happening here”.

She also…

  • Suggested scheduling PMQs for 60 minutes. 
  • Described the prorogation protest by anti-’shutdown’ colleagues as “one of the most edifying moments in our parliamentary history”.
  • Said her staff “know not to go out drinking [on the estate]”.

Summing up, she said there is currently a “crisis of confidence in our democracy”. To address that, she would “open up the opaque areas of our democracy”, champion parliament and tackle its bullying culture.

Lindsay Hoyle

The deputy speaker who has already chaired PMQs highlighted his experience and argued that he has gained respect from members from across the House. He described himself as “neutral”, “very honest” and “there to ensure the backbenchers hold the executive to account”.

Hoyle wasn’t explicitly critical of Bercow but made it clear he would do things differently. For example, he said the clerks’ advice should have been made public when Bercow decided controversially to allow the ‘SO24’ to be used by MPs to control the agenda for the Benn Bill’s passage. He expressed support for a codified constitution, “done by experts not the Speaker”.

Asked by LabourList whether the system needed reform in terms of the Speaker being an MP without the right to vote in the Commons, Hoyle offered the most pro-reform answer. “There is a case to say you should no longer represent a parliamentary seat,” he replied, noting that this would be “true independence”.

Asked whether there was a drink problem in parliament, he replied that “it’s not just drink” but also a “drug problem”. He said there needs to be counselling available to all staff and members. 

He also said…

  • The prorogation protest was “the worst” of the Commons, describing it as “nastiness”. He added: “I don’t want to see it again.”
  • His seat voted to Leave in 2016 but refused to reveal how he voted himself. “The best thing I have done is not say where I stand,” he told us.
  • There should be “no clapping”, “certainly no singing”, no T-shirts with slogans and no photos taken in the chamber.

Hoyle summed up his pitch saying he has shown he has the ability to do the job, specifically emphasising “independence”, “neutrality” and gaining respect from MPs across the chamber.

Rosie Winterton

Also a deputy speaker as well as a former Labour chief whip, Winterton said it was time to “lower the temperature” in parliament and elect a Speaker with a lower profile. “I don’t want to be a household name,” she told us, before underscoring the importance of consensus.

The MP for Doncaster Central noted several times that she was standing as a woman from Yorkshire and said her Northern background would inform her decisions as Speaker – taking particular care to consider MPs with families outside London, for instance. 

Winterton expressed strong views on MPs’ behaviour in the chamber, saying clapping was “nonsense” as the Commons is “not a theatre”. She said there was a need to be “much stricter” about the use of handheld devices (“MPs shouldn’t be distracted”) though she would not go as far as banning phones. Slogan on T-shirts are “not on”, she said.

She also…

  • Agreed that there were “tensions” around party allegiance and not being able to vote in the role of Speaker. 
  • Said at PMQs she would call every MP on the order paper plus only two more, aiming for the session to end at 12.35pm. 
  • Agreed with the others on the prorogation protest, saying it “looked terrible” and “was very unfair on staff”.

Her final pitch described herself as “stabilising and unifying”. She said there was appetite for a female Speaker, and also somebody from outside London – ”for example Yorkshire!”.

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