The new speaker will be a pivotal figure in an increasingly febrile political landscape

Posted On: 
4th November 2019

Whichever candidate prevails as the new Speaker, they will have an important duty to enhance staff wellbeing, writes Dods Monitoring's Guinevere Poncia. 

John Bercow's retirement signals the end of an oft-controversial era, where relations between the Speaker and the Government reached a new low, and the relationship between the public and Parliament is under increasing strain, says Guinevere Poncia.
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After one of the most turbulent Parliamentary decades in living memory, John Bercow’s time as Commons Speaker has ended. His retirement signals the end of an oft-controversial era, where relations between the Speaker and the Government reached a new low, and the relationship between the public and Parliament is under increasing strain.

The new Speaker will continue to be a pivotal figure as these circumstances develop and will face the daunting task of guiding Parliament through what remains of Brexit, as well as the responsibility of addressing other challenges facing the Parliamentary community, including bullying and harassment and MPs’ safety. 

View full Speaker Election report from Dods Monitoring.

How is a Speaker elected?

Electing a new Speaker is a speedy process. Over one day, MPs cast secret votes for their preferred candidate under the supervision of the Father of the House, currently outgoing Rushcliffe MP Ken Clarke. Once a candidate receives over fifty per cent of the vote, the question is put to the House whether they should take the Chair as Speaker.

Bercow’s Legacy

Bercow, a marmite figure, is widely seen as having exerted Parliament’s authority over the Government and empowering backbenchers. His most noteworthy change to procedure has been to allow far greater use of urgent questions and emergency debates.

His historic rulings to frustrate the attempts of both Theresa May and Boris Johnson to bring repeated votes on singular motions, resulted in vocal dissent on the Government benches. Brexiteers have also implied that his selection of amendments often favoured pro-remain MPs. Indeed, Eleanor Laing suggested that Bercow had “loaded the dice” in Parliament.

Bercow has been involved in some pretty spectacular spats with his Parliamentary colleagues. Some Conservative MPs took up the habit of wearing ‘BBB’ (“B*****ked by Bercow”) badges, and it was reported that after a run-in with Mark Pritchard, he shouted, “you are not f*****g royalty, Mr Speaker”.

MP’s safety

As the political landscape has become increasingly febrile, MPs, their staff, and families have increasingly borne the brunt of public frustration. For many, this has radically increased concerns about personal safety and led to increased security measures. Lindsay Hoyle revealed to the BBC that some MPs have told him that they would not stand again because of such fears. “We're in danger of losing democracy in this country,” he said.

The Jo Cox Foundation has called on all political parties to agree a code of conduct to help protect MPs. The Speaker has an influential role in this respect, tasked with moderating debate and encourage consensus over standards of conduct. Bercow attempted to do this in September when he summoned party leaders to an emergency meeting on the increased use of inflammatory language around Brexit. Rosie Winterton commented “if they [the public] don’t see us being respectful to each other, they’re not going to respect us”.

Staff relations

The new Speaker will also have the important and urgent task of repairing relations with House colleagues and ensuring proper support for staff. Seventy staffers recently signed a letter to the House Magazine demanding that the new Speaker addresses the loss of working rights when moving from office to office. 

It is hard to forget the damning conclusion of the 2018 Cox report which found that there was a culture of “deference and silence” in Parliament which “actively sought to cover up abusive conduct” and offered little protection to victims. Bercow himself was accused of bullying by two former private secretaries, allegations which have never been fully investigated.

Despite Cox’s demands for “genuine commitment on the part of the leadership of the House” to deliver “fundamental and permanent change”, few concrete actions have been taken regarding the report’s recommendations. Two subsequent reports from QCs Gemma White and Naomi Ellenbogen have moreover urged parliament to adopt new employment measures to better protect staff, pointing to a culture of “undue deference, fear and hierarchy”, within the House of Lords.

The current Speaker candidates have posited various suggestions to address this, including staff representatives on the House of Commons Commission and the Speaker’s Committee on IPSA, as well as creating a more powerful human resources department. Whichever candidate prevails, they will have an important duty to enhance staff wellbeing.

 Download a full analysis from Dods Monitoring on the Speaker Election, here.