Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Electing The Deputy Speaker

Tomorrow sees an important event in Parliamentary history - the first by-election for a Deputy Speakership. The traditional practice of appointing Deputy Speakers was via the "usual channels", which are outlined in a report by the House of Commons Procedure Committee, which recommended that the House of Commons elects the 3 Deputy Speakers, and in a later report (which curiously appears to be misdated, as it's published February 2009 but refers to a Speakership election later that year) gave further details of how it thinks the choice should be made - that basically, the Speakership team should have 2 members drawn from the Government (i.e. MPs who are from the party/parties that form the Government) and 2 from the Opposition (by this, the Committee does not mean the Official Opposition - Labour currently, but the Conservatives at the time - but instead any MP who is not from the Government side).

Although the Speaker stands for re-election at general elections as Mr/Madam Speaker seeking re-election, in this system what matters is which party the Speaker represented when he or she was first elected Speaker.

This system does not extend to the devolved legislatures. In the Scottish Parliament, the first two Presiding Officers (the Liberal Democrats' David Steel and then the Scottish National Party's George Reid) both retired at the elections at the end of their 4-year terms of office (May 2003 and May 2007 respectively), but the third Presiding Officer, the Conservatives' Alex Fergusson, stood for re-election as a Conservative in May 2011, but did not seek re-election as Presiding Officer.

The Welsh Assembly is another case where there is a former Presiding Officer around. The first Presiding Officer, Plaid Cymru's Dafydd Elis-Thomas, simply stood for re-election as a Plaid Cymru candidate in 2003, 2007 and in 2011, while after the 2003 and 2007 elections the Assembly re-elected him as Presiding Officer.

Would there really be a problem with a Speaker declaring that they would not seek another term as Speaker, but would seek re-election as an MP under their original party's colours?

There is one misconception that has grown up around the Speakership, which is the "swing of the pendulum". If we look at the list of Speakers in the 20th and (so far!) 21st centuries we have:

Speaker Party upon election Date of taking office Government at time of taking office
William Gully Liberal April 1895 Liberal
James Lowther* Conservative June 1905 Conservative
John Whitley* Coalition Liberal April 1921 Coalition
Edward FitzRoy* Conservative June 1928 Conservative
Douglas Clifton-Brown* Conservative March 1943 National
William Morrison Conservative November 1951 Conservative
Harry Hylton-Foster Conservative October 1959 Conservative
Horace King* Labour October 1965 Labour
Selwyn Lloyd Conservative January 1971 Conservative
George Thomas* Labour February 1976 Labour
Bernard Weatherill* Conservative June 1983 Conservative
Betty Boothroyd* Labour April 1992 Conservative
Michael Martin* Labour October 2000 Labour
John Bercow Conservative June 2009 Labour

[* Deputy Speaker at time of election]

When Martin was elected Speaker there were objections that Labour had abused its massive parliamentary majority to install a Labour MP and had thus ignored the "swing of the pendulum". This is tosh. Yes, from Hylton-Foster to Boothroyd the Speakership had alternated, but the normal practice was for a new Speaker to come from the Government side, and this alternating had been no more than just a consequence of who was in power at the time the Speakership fell vacant. It was not Martin's election that was the aberration, but Boothroyd's.

Having a balanced team was less important in earlier days. Indeed, at the time of King's resignation, his 2 Deputies (and there were only 2 in those days) were Conservatives - Robert Grant-Ferris and Betty Harvie-Anderson - and Lloyd's election led to the last time the Speakership team was comprised of one party. This situation was rectified in November 1971 when a third Deputy Speakership position was created and given to Labour's Lance Mallalieu.

While the general pattern of 2 Conservative and 2 Labour MPs in the Speakership team has been the norm since then, there was a recent shift from this. Martin, naturally, had 2 Conservative and 1 Labour Deputy Speakers, and Bercow - as a Conservative who had been drawn from outside the Speakership team - inherited this, so for a few months there were 3 Conservative and 1 Labour MP on the Speakership team.

This brings me to one important principle - while the Deputy Speakership elections have to take into account the former allegiance of the Speaker, the reverse is not true. If Bercow were suddenly to resign, and replaced by a Labour MP from outside the Speakership team, then it would just be one of those things. Neither Labour Deputy Speaker would be required to resign and be replaced by a Conservative MP in the interests of balance.

Since the Liberals' Roderic Brown - as Deputy Speaker - lost his seat in the March 1966 general election, there has been no member of the Speakership team from outside the 2 main parties. John Hemming, Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, did suggest a fourth Deputy Speaker, to be drawn from the Liberal Democrats or minor parties, but this has not been followed up.

There are 7 candidates for the Deputy Speakership, all Conservative MPs. If we look at the allegiance of their sponsors, we get:

MP Constituency Conservative Labour Liberal Democrat Scottish National Party Democratic Unionist Party Independent Liberal Democrat Independent Unionist
David Amess Southend West 4 3 2 1 0 0 0
Henry Bellingham Norfolk North West 7 2 1 0 0 0 0
Brian Binley Northampton South 5 3 0 0 1 1 0
Simon Burns Chelmsford 10 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nadine Dorries Bedfordshire Mid 4 2 0 0 0 0 0
Eleanor Laing Epping Forest 4 4 1 0 0 0 1
Gary Streeter Devon South West 5 4 1 0 0 0 0

When it comes to getting sponsors, it is clear that Amess and Laing have done the most to get support outside of the Conservatives, with both of them - as well as Binley - looking for sponsors from beyond the 3 main parties.

And by this time tomorrow, we shall know who has been elected.

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