After over ten years as Speaker, John Bercow has announced his intention to stand down at the end of October. As for who will replace him, that is unclear and will be decided by an election amongst MPs, several of whom have already declared their candidacy. But how does that election work? Mark Bennister offers a guide to the process.
During yet another dramatic day in the House of Commons on Monday 9 September, the Commons Speaker John Bercow announced he would be stepping down either ’when this Parliament ends’ (if the Commons voted for an early election) or on 31 October. As the motion for an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act did not secure the required two-thirds majority, this means he will be in the Chair for some further drama until the end of October.
On 22 June 2019, John Bercow marked his tenth anniversary as Commons Speaker. He was the first Speaker to be elected under the new system of secret ballots (SO No. 1B). He is the longest serving Commons Speaker since Edward Fitzroy, who died in office in 1943, having served since 1928. John Bercow is therefore the longest serving post-war Speaker. He had at one point let it be known that he would serve no more than 9 years, however the snap election in 2017 and the aftermath of the EU referendum led to considerable speculation that he would alter his position and continue as Speaker for the full parliamentary term.
Despite publicly stating that parliament would be the first to hear of his intention to step down, expectation had mounted that his retirement was imminent. In October 2018, in the wake of the Cox report into harassment and bullying of House of Commons staff (in which he was personally criticised), there were reports suggesting that he would step down in June or July 2019. However, this prediction was proven wrong in May, when he said in a speech that he had no intention of departing in the immediate future. The prospect of an early election this autumn and reports that the Conservatives would field a candidate against him if he stood again in his Buckingham constituency may have prompted the decision to leave next month. He therefore chose to seize the opportunity before this most unusual prorogation and retire on his own terms.
Having been elected after Michael Martin’s forced retirement in 2009, Bercow was re-elected in 2010, 2015 and 2017, following successive general elections. Each time he has been re-elected unopposed. More popular on the Labour benches and with an increasingly fractious relationship with the government, his support on Conservative benches dwindled. At each re-election disgruntled Conservative MPs have considered forcing a vote. And in 2015 the government tried to remove him, by attempting to pass a motion requiring the Speaker to be re-elected by secret ballot. However, it failed to gain enough support from MPs to depart from the usual procedure. He has since resisted pressure from his detractors to stand down before the crucial meaningful votes. In fact the parliamentary arithmetic and Brexit divisions have repeatedly propelled him to the centre stage at a time of national angst.
The election of a new Speaker will be only the second such election under the new rules and the first after the Procedure Committee reviewed Bercow’s original election in February 2010 and some small changes were made. The timing means that the new Speaker will be likely to be elected by the current parliament, rather than any new one after an election (although parliament could still be dissolved before 31 October). With the government in a minority at present, the opposition parties will have a considerable hand in choosing John Bercow’s successor. He explained to the Commons on 9 September that the timing was the ‘least disruptive’ in the run up to 31 October and the ‘most democratic because it will mean that a ballot is held when all members have some knowledge of the candidates.’
As speculation mounted that Speaker Bercow would step down, candidates started to line up to replace him. The post is coveted by many. So far Chris Bryant, Pete Wishart, Sir Edward Leigh, and Dame Eleanor Laing have indicated an intention to run, with Wishart releasing a manifesto earlier in the year, when it was thought the Speaker might depart in the summer. Likely favourites, Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Harriet Harman formally joined the race the day after Bercow’s announcement. On 15 April Nicky Morgan and Gloria del Piero wrote in the Times that the next Speaker should be a woman, pointing out that it will be the first time many (most) in the House will have voted in a Speaker election, with new intakes in 3 elections since 2009.
The supposed convention that the Speaker should be from the opposition party is not borne out by the recent incumbents, leading Andrew Kennon to conclude in a Constitution Unit blogpost in June 2017: ‘The House’s freedom to make its own choice among an array of volunteers probably means that any sense of it being the “turn” of a particular party is out of date’.
When the election occurs what can we expect?
Firstly the election will be occurring technically mid-way through a parliamentary term (though more likely towards the end, assuming an early election is called), giving MPs who have experience of the House the chance to vote for the Speaker rather than at the start of a new parliament. This is important as almost 40 MPs have declared that they will not be seeking re-election and any new parliament is certain to contain many new MPs. Convention dictates that retiring speakers step down from the Commons and are offered a peerage. Yet there is no statutory requirement for this, and it was reported in January this year, in the wake of the WA votes, that the government may not offer Bercow the expected seat in the Lords. Even Michael Martin took a peerage when he was forced to resign after the expenses scandal in 2009.
Secondly, any MP seeking the post will need cross party support (and not just from the party leaders, as the secret ballot will make whipping impossible to enforce) and will be likely to present themselves as being a different style of Speaker compared to Bercow. In 2009 Bercow became the first Speaker since 1943 to win office without either ministerial experience or having been a Deputy Speaker. In 1992 Betty Boothroyd beat former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke largely thanks to 70 votes from Conservatives. Indeed Bercow won in 2009 by campaigning on a post expenses reformist platform. With a number of declared candidates, we can expect a large field. In 2000, 12 candidates contested the election which Giles Radice described as ‘a medieval jousting competition’. In 2009, 10 candidates contested the election under the new secret ballot arrangements. With more time to campaign, hustings were held and we can expect a similar public election, reflecting the external facing role of the post. Bercow, up against Conservative’s choice Sir George Young, even had a Labour campaign manager, Martin Salter which paid off as Labour rallied behind him. As Chris Mullin noted in his diary entry in June 2009, ‘the Tories have been well and truly shafted’.
Thirdly, in 2019 the politics will be very different, but expect similar political manoeuvring. There may be an opening for a candidate from outside the two main parties, and the Brexit position of any candidate will be closely scrutinised. The Speaker may have to resign from their party, but as Bercow has shown the position is not above the politics of the day. Having established an assertive role for backbenchers via acceptance of urgent questions, and rulings that favoured the chamber and made life more uncomfortable for the executive he has laid down new precedents for his successor.
A new Speaker is elected by secret ballot in accordance with Standing Order No 1B. The procedure will be overseen by the Father of the House, currently Kenneth Clarke. Once a vacancy is confirmed, the timescale is tight. Nominations have to be submitted between 9.30 and 10.30 on the morning of the election, supported by between 12 and 15 names. Three of these must be MPs from a party different from that of the candidate. No MP may sign more than one nomination paper.
The ballot would take place that afternoon. This leaves little scope for hustings, soundings or understandings, which explains why potential candidates are already on manoeuvres. If more than one candidate is nominated, they each address the House, in turn (the order is determined by drawing lots).
In 2009 there were ten candidates and the process took six hours. In the first ballot, the highest placed candidate achieved 179 votes out of the 594 cast. Four candidates with less than 5% of the votes each were then eliminated. In the second ballot, the lowest candidate was eliminated and three others withdrew. This left just two MPs in the third ballot: John Bercow beat Sir George (now Lord) Young by 322 votes to 271.
As early indications show, and because of the low threshold for nominations, we can expect a wide range of candidates. However we can also expect a very different dynamic from 2009. The expenses scandal has been replaced by a titanic battle between parliament and the executive, that will rumble on. The new Speaker will be required to navigate the complex Brexit territory, rebuild trust in the institution, show leadership, champion backbenchers, ensure the Commons is a safe place to work and oversee restoration. It is a big undertaking: good luck!
This blogpost was first published on the UCL Constitution Unit blog on 18 September here