The Speaker, Controversy and Parliamentary Reform

John Bercow is a controversial Speaker who seems to be rather good at alienating MPs, particularly his former colleagues on the Conservative benches.  The most notorious story last week was about Conservative MP Mark Pritchard refusing to make way for him with the immortal words “You are not f**king royalty.”  This enlightening incident, and the raft of other accusations faced by Mr. Speaker Bercow, are covered in this article in the Independent by Sarah Sands.  But while much of this is entertaining, it would be foolish to ignore Bercow’s real value to both parliament and politics students, which is as a genuine and convinced reformer.  His speech yesterday to the Institute for Government covered a number of key issues about the government’s proposed parliamentary reform.

Bercow stated his clear objection to the proposal to reduce the number of MPs to 600 from 650 - the very issue that is so exercising the House of Lords that they have been debating through the night to filibuster the whole Bill (see earlier posts).  While their noble Labour lordships - red in colour and politics - are principally concerned with the party political issue that that the reduction will mainly affect Labour representation, Bercow is more loftily concerned with the impact of this reduction on the legislature’s job of scrutiny.  In sum, he says that a reduction in MPs without a reduction in ministers effectively increases the number and influence of government ministers within our fused legislature.  Such a development could further weaken the Commons’ already suspect capacity to properly and independently check government legislation.  Paul Waugh quoted Bercow as follows:

“It may well be that people [MPs] will have to work harder to scrutinise effectively if the balance between backbenchers and ministers is squeezed more in favour of ministers. Would that concern me? It would.”

“The idea that this is a straight-forward case of saving money is not the case … My concern is that we should have a better quality of representation and of scrutiny. I’m not myself concerned with the issue of cutting the cost of politics.”

On the subject of scrutiny, incidentally, the Speaker was even prepared to include bloggers in his external “network of scrutiny” that complements the parliamentary job. 

John Bercow came to office in controversial circumstances - the forced removal of his predecessor.  There is no doubt that his temper, his own political journey from right-wing student activist to maverick left-wing Tory, and his genuine agitation for parliamentary reform, have not endeared him to his parliamentary colleagues, especially those he once sat with, who see him as an unconscionable traitor.  But, as Peter Riddell remarks in his excellent overview of Bercow’s speech on the Institute of Government’s website, he has been a genuinely reforming Speaker:

Mr Bercow can fairly claim to have done his bit, notably through the revival of the Urgent Question whereby ministers have to answer a highly topical question submitted on the day by an MP.

The number awarded has risen by two in the 12 months before he became Speaker to 22 in his first year in office. This, he rightly argues, has made the House “a more relevant and unpredictable place” and has assisted what he calls “scrutiny by examination, not merely via observation”.

And Bercow also wants to see Select Committees gain greater prominence.  Students analysing the ongoing dynamics of coalition politics will obviously be following the words and actions of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband.  But it’s clear that they should follow the words and deeds of Speaker Bercow with just as much zeal if they are to make proper sense of the significant changes taking place in parliament.

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