The change of Commons speaker is a pivotal moment for politics and for Brexit, says ANDREW ADONIS.
For Remainers, the poison pill of the parliament just ended was the replacement of John Bercow with Sir Lindsay Hoyle as speaker. Is the change as bad as it seems?
Undoubtedly, a forthright, innovatory champion of parliamentary independence has been succeeded by a highly cautious long-time deputy speaker who will almost certainly row back on some of Bercow’s reforms to strengthen parliament against the executive.
It is a conscious act of counter-reformation driven by ministers and Brexiter MPs desperate for a pliant rather than assertive speaker.
The final choice between Hoyle, MP for pro-Leave Chorley (56.8% to 43.2%), near Preston, and Chris Bryant, a continuity Bercow extrovert, could not have been more starkly one of ‘radical’ v ‘conservative’, disguised only by the fact that both are Labour MPs.
This latter fact is also the reason that Hoyle won, whereas a Tory Brexiter might not have done so. For Labour MPs split. A group of stalwart Labour friends and associates of Hoyle gave him a majority, allied to overwhelming Tory support.
His supporter base was immediately demonstrated by the identity of the two MPs who ‘dragged’ him to the Speaker’s chair in the traditional show of reluctance: Nigel Evans, one of the most raucous Tory Brexiters, and Caroline Flint, Labour’s Brexiter-in-chief and MP for pro-Leave Don Valley in South Yorkshire.
“This is a Brexit takeover,” a pro-Bryant MP said to me ruefully after the six hours of voting. “We won’t get a look-in after the election.”
Maybe so, if there is another hung parliament with Boris Johnson in constant battle with an anti-Brexit parliamentary majority. But history never quite repeats itself, and counter-reformations rarely succeed in completely turning the clock back. The change from Bercow to Hoyle may turn out to be more of style than substance.
Indeed, if a minority Labour government takes office next month, seeking to pilot controversial Brexit referendum legislation through the Commons in the New Year, Hoyle could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. He would probably hold back a Tory opposition from frustrating ministers in the way Theresa May and Johnson were subject to constant parliamentary assault over the past three years. It all depends on the result on December 12 and who is in Number 10 thereafter.
It is important to appreciate the three different categories of innovation made by Bercow in his decade in the speaker’s chair, spanning four prime ministers and three minority governments.
The first and most obvious was his constant, loquacious rhetoric from the chair. Never has a speaker spoken so much and at such length, or relished so many archaic and unusual words. (“As for you Mr Lucas, I’ve told you you need to go on some sort of therapeutic training course if you’re to attain the level of statesmanship to which you aspire…”). He wasn’t only the most impactful speaker since William Lenthall, who refused to let King Charles I enter the Commons chamber to arrest MPs in person in 1642. He even spoke a similar language.
Bercow’s finest hour was his statement, issued on holiday abroad minutes after Johnson’s announcement of the five-week suspension of parliament in late August. “I have had no contact from the government,” he declared. “But if the reports that it is seeking to prorogue parliament are confirmed, this move represents a constitutional outrage. However, it is dressed up it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty.”
This had echoes of Yeltsin standing on the tank in defiance of the coup against Gorbachev, and Lenthall’s historic words, to Charles I: “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here.”
Hoyle is a virtual mute by comparison and will appear almost invisible and inarticulate in the chair. However, it is the substance of the speaker’s decisions that matter more than the manner of their delivery, and less oratory may not matter much.
The second Bercow innovation was to make ministers far more accountable to parliament, day by day, by allowing far more emergency debates and urgent questions, and allowing questioning of ministers – particularly the prime minister – to continue far longer than previously. This was most notable at the weekly prime minister’s question session on Wednesdays, which Bercow virtually doubled in length from half an hour to nearly an hour by the simple expedient of calling more questioners.
In the year before he became speaker only two urgent questions, requiring ministers to answer immediately, were granted. Last year it was 152.
I doubt the Hoyle counter-reformation will completely reverse all this. If Hoyle were to notably shorten question sessions or start routinely refusing urgent questions on topical matters, he would appear weak and ineffectual by comparison with his predecessor. I doubt he will wish to go there; nor will most backbench MPs, on whichever side of the House they sit.
It is the third and least visible area of Bercow innovation which has been most far-reaching. As May and Johnson both hit an impasse with parliament over Brexit, the speaker allowed backbench MPs to introduce legislation, and to vote down and amend government motions, in new ways. This was done by Bercow reinterpreting standing orders to enable backbenchers to command parliamentary time, and take initiatives previously thought to be the preserve of ministers alone.
Bercow’s constitutional legacy turns on his action in this crucial third sphere. It was this innovatory spirit which enabled the Benn Act to pass, requiring the government to apply for the latest extension of Britain’s EU membership at the end of October. Introduced by a crossbench coalition of MPs led by Labour’s Hilary Benn, the legislation even included the terms of the letter which Johnson was required to send to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, requesting the extension.
In my view Bercow’s decisions were justified by the fact that a parliamentary majority backed virtually every opportunity provided to enforce its will against May and Johnson. The existence of such a majority, at a time of acute crisis, deserved to find parliamentary expression and Bercow’s actions were well judged and in the spirit of the sovereignty of parliament, which is the central principle of the British constitution.
However, the big question is what does the sovereignty of parliament mean in the modern British constitution? Bercow’s actions cut across the evolution over more than a century’s growth of executive control of parliament. Until Bercow, the modern constitutional practice was that once a government secured the ‘confidence’ of the House of Commons – in that there was no majority of MPs to vote it out of office and replace it with a different government – then ministers had a largely free hand to fulfil their mandate, as they defined it, until the following election.
It is what Lord Hailsham, a Tory Lord Chancellor in the 1970s and 1980s, called Britain’s “elective dictatorship” – something he deplored when in opposition but exerted to the full when in government.
The decisive shift to elective dictatorship came with the First and Second World Wars and their imperative of total national mobilisation. It was perpetuated after 1945, partly because it was by then the status quo and partly because of the long, virtually unbroken era of majority governments until 2010.
Another key factor in the ‘elective dictatorship’ era was the willing subservience of Tory and Labour MPs to their party leaderships. Until recently we took this too for granted, but it was more contingent than appreciated – contingent on the fact until party leadership election systems were changed in both parties after 1981, party leaders were chosen by MPs alone. Now, party activists are involved in choosing party leaders. This has fundamentally changed the relationship between MPs and their leaders, exacerbated by minority governments since 2010.
A large part of the Brexit battle, in the context of minority governments and growing discord between MPs and their leaders, has been controversy over the legitimacy of these models of executive-parliamentary relations – ‘elective dictatorship’ model or ‘parliamentary supremacy’. Bercow has been at the fulcrum of this debate, but it is far bigger than him and it is not remotely concluded.
In my view, parliamentary supremacy is a far more liberal, plural and modern view of how democracy should work. It needs to go hand in hand with greater devolution to local and regional government in England and the replacement of the House of Lords with a federal senate. All this would make the United Kingdom much more like the Federal Republic of Germany, the best governed large state in Europe since 1949, whose constitution was largely written by enlightened British experts whose views held little sway in Britain itself. Just as on Brexit.
In decades to come, Bercow may be seen as a catalyst and the agent of fundamental constitutional change in the UK. Or he will be regarded as an aberration caused partly by his exceptional extrovert personality – Netflix movies are already in the making – and partly by the exceptional nature of the 2017-19 Brexit parliament. Time will tell.