Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Speaker Bercow in the chair

The Commons chose it's new Speaker yesterday. How the day unfurled...

No mace across the end of the dispatch table, no sign of Speaker Martin, and no trace of guilt on the faces of MPs. But the sentiment of the infamous Matt cartoon of MPs - "As soon as I saw what I’d had been up to, I knew the Speaker had to go" - hung over them all

The final hustings for the election of a new Speaker, a convulsion of the expenses scandal, was an underwhelming experience, particularly for those of their colleagues who had to hear the recycled speeches of ten candidates from earlier events all over again.

There was a lot of talk from all of them about reform and tradition and getting a grip on expenses. But from the reception when Margaret Beckett rose to speak it was hard to believe this constituency of 600 or so, mostly male, mostly middle-aged parliamentarians would vote for anyone as outward looking and reforming as John Bercow promises to be.

The Labour whips’ Mrs Fix-it failed to find the traction and wit to please the House and Sir George Young, the Tory favourite, saw his jokes borne across the chamber on a carpet of laughter. Tradition looked like a safe bet. His was an assuring voice, compared to the shrill address of Ann Widdecombe. She did her work for parliament years ago by making Michael Howard unelectable. "Something of the night" sat only two seats from her, chortling as she recruited Dennis Skinner to her campaign.

In the Westminster playground Labour love John Bercow just ‘cos Tories hate him. Few MPs voted for the person who would make best Speaker, but the one who would spike the opposition best. Knowing who is friends were Mr Bercow opened his speech by mocking a patrician Tory rival - easily identified as the marble-mouthed Sir Partick Cormack - to ingratiate himself still further.

He sold himself as the next Thomas More when in fact he’s only the size of the next Napoleon Bonaparte. In the gallery his wife, Sally, the only person to have heard his speech more often than himself, nodded her head approvingly at the key phrase - "clean break candidate".

She is important to the chequered Bercow mythology. A Labour member since 1997, having previously been a Tory supporter, it is said she softened the far-right "repatriation" Tory into the beacon of liberalism he is today. In any case Labour MPs bought that story, forgave him his past, smiled, and put him top of the first ballot.

Sir Old of Old and Alan Beith and White Haired Tory said their bit and Sir Patrick entreatingly reminded it us it was Machiavelli’s birthday and, for no apparent reason, the eve of Bannockburn. Go figure - it won him only 13 votes. Sir Alan Hazelhurst, a sorcerer’s apprentice speaker for so long, listed practical spells to restore confidence. Parmjit Dhanda spoke to the heart, and the Twitter generation, but in response to his Obamasque challenge - "Do we get it?" - they all answered "no we don’t" and gave him 26 votes.

Four dropped out after the first round - Cormack, Dhanda, Lord and Shepherd - but it was impossible to say which direction the votes would be recast. Some thought Bercow had peaked at 179 votes and that the Conservatives would coalesce around Sir George Young on 112. All six remaining candidates stayed in the race.

At the next hurdle, with only Bercow and Young in triple figures, the others retired and it became a straight race. Now it was an exciting choice "between a Tory toff and a Tory socialist". Bercow, the Left’s tribune, was ahead on 221 but Young looked strong on 174 with over 200 votes up for grabs. Too close to call.

Time dragged on rumour and sigh until 8.30 pm when stone-faced Tory backbenchers took their seats and it was clear who had won. They found themselves unable to cheer when his majority of 51 was announced, or when he was "dragged" to the chair by his supporters. Only when the symbol of parliament and the Queen’s authority, the mace, was in its place did they rise reluctantly with other sides to applaud the Speaker-elect.

As The father of the House, Alan Williams, declared him the new Speaker Nadine Dorries injected "Labour" before the title, displaying the partisan venom that ran just below the surface of what was ostensibly a contest of reformers.

So it was that a 46 year old public affairs consultant, the son of a London taxi driver, replaced a Glasgow sheet metal worker as the symbol of Commons renewal. Just as Mr Martin was the first Roman Catholic to hold the office Speaker Bercow became the first Jew to sit on the Speaker’s alter.

The first task of this pledged reformer is to ask the unelected head of state, the Queen, for permission to become the Common’s Speaker. It is one tradition he is unlikely to overturn.

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