Expectations of a new Speaker

I am not surprised to hear that Ann Widdecombe is popular in the country for the job of Speaker. It just goes to show how large a role media image plays these days in people’s assessment. Ann has been on the media more than most of the candidates and is therefore “better known”. People have unrealistic expectations of what someone could achieve in say ten months in the job, when any change has to meet with the approval of a majority of the Commons, and to be tested in debate and with a vote.

The Commons needs a new system for expenses – new tighter rules on what can be claimed, and a better run administration and audit of the payments. All Speaker candidates propose waiting for the Kelly Report. A new Speaker will then have to decide whether to use what influence they have to persuade the main parties to accept Kelly and implement it, or decide that Kelly has got some of it wrong and seek to change and amend it. Whoever is Speaker, this issue is largely out of their hands, and is unlikely to be settled before the end of this year. The Prime Minister and governing party will have most say over this, as they control most votes. If they are sensible they will seek consensus with the other two main parties.

The Commons needs to assert itself against the executive. I doubt that any new Speaker this Parliament will be able to end the guillotines to give us more time to debate the important issues on Bills, nor will he or she be able to persuade this government to table motions in government time on the most important or embarrassing issues. The majority party largely controls the agenda of the House. The Speaker has little power to make the Executive table and debate things they do not want to debate. The best way the Speaker could flex the power of the office to improve accountability would be to grant more requests for urgent debates on topics which the government refuses to table. This is in the Speaker’s power, and the government has to field a Minister if the Speaker says Yes to an Opposition or backbench request for an urgent debate. None of the candidates have proposed using this power more as far as I am aware.

The Speaker for the next Parliament is highly likely to be a member of the present Parliament. Delaying the decision until the first day of the new Parliament by appointing an interim this time does not guarantee a better result. There may be many new MPs elected at the next Election. They are unlikely to know much about the merits and characters of the candidates on their first day. I still think it best that we appoint someone with authority this time round. An interim Speaker will always face the retort if wanting to make a change that she would not be around to have to live with the consequences or to supervise its full successful implementation.

The Commons needs to insist on Ministers making statements to the House first. A strong Speaker would make this a number one issue. Once again, however, the tyranny of the majority means that unless the Speaker can mobilise backbench Labour MPs as well as the rest of us, this can only be achieved by persuading the government.

Some have said I ought to stand. I have not done so for a variety of reasons. The most important is I do not wish to exclude myself from the debate on the big economic, constitutional and European issues. A Speaker must not have views, and must certainly not seek to express them.

An interim Speaker would in effect have just seven months of active service. The House will start too long a summer recess in July, not returning until October. This Parliament will end in April assuming a May election. Even a strong Speaker would be unable to impose a September session to hold the government to account, as the recess dates are decided by the government.


  1. eeyore
    June 21, 2009

    As always, a wise and thought-provoking post. One day your country will call, Mr Redwood. Realistic expectations of what the new Speaker can do in the short time he or she will have before the election are, surely, no more than: 1. to explain and defend the House in the media (and heaven knows it needs defending right now); 2. to take the first steps toward giving it back its self-respect with some firm but fair application of the rules as they stand. I see no reason, for instance, why the new Speaker should not let it be known that his or her beady eye will be on expenses personally, and that the heavens will descend on miscreants who fail to please.

    A candidate who can do these things stands a good chance of re-moralising MPs as well as reassuring us common people – and it is, after all, our House, not yours.

    1. jean baker
      June 22, 2009

      I agree, but I doubt it’s the Speaker’s role to monitor whether or not the Fees Office operates according to rules. I do not expect a new Speaker to insist on a thorough investigation into the way in which the Fees Office has been allowed to malfunction.

      Whilst MP’s vote ‘in secret’ for a new Speaker, they do so on the basis of trust, with absolutely no means of checking the validity of the ‘count’.

      Conversely, a truly democratic way of voting would be ‘raising hands’
      in Parliament in full, televised public view – totally open and transparent.

      Ann Widdicombe is highly experienced, not afraid to speak her mind and is never intimidated by bullies – a true politician and thoroughly decent human being – the tonic Parliament needs.

      Reply: We do usually vote in full public view, with every vote recorded so you can see what we did. This is the first time I have been involved in a secret ballot in Parliament, and counting the first vote is taking a very long time.

  2. Stuart Fairney
    June 21, 2009

    Sir, I hope you will have far too big a role in a future tory administration to even consider the Speakership

  3. wonderfulforhisage
    June 21, 2009

    Mr R. you write:

    “There may be many new MPs elected at the next Election. They are unlikely to know much about the merits and characters of the candidates on their first day.”

    Agreed, but better the naive judgement of the new boys and grils than the venal cynicism of many of their predecessors say I.

    1. backofanenvelope
      June 21, 2009

      I am with you on this; why shouldn’t any speaker be elected on the clear understanding that there will have to be another election after the General Election.

      The Labour majority will elect “Flowerpots” and it will all end in uproar.

      Mr Redwood and his fellows have, by ousting the first speaker in 3 centuries, put the election of the new speaker front and centre for the public.

      Today’s Telegraph makes it quite clear that they are all tainted to a greater or lesser degree.

      If the Tories form the next government they should behave honourably and install someone from Labour or the LibDems.

    2. oldrightie
      June 21, 2009

      hear, hear.

  4. David Belchamber
    June 21, 2009

    “The Commons needs to insist on Ministers making statements to the House first. A strong Speaker would make this a number one issue”.

    This is a vital issue. One of the candidates for Speaker suggested that any minister announcing government policy on TV first should not be called to speak on the subject in the House.

    The new Speaker must be a committed parliamentarian who will work with the leaders of the main parties to ensure that Parliament “is not mocked”, as has been the case so frequently in recent years. Parliament is paramount.

  5. Stewart Knight
    June 21, 2009

    Beckett would be just another partisan Martin; she couldn’t help herself, which is why she should not get the job.

  6. Brian Tomkinson
    June 21, 2009

    Be careful when you talk about the “tyranny of the majority”, people will interpret that as a desire for proportional representation. The real tyranny is the tribal party system which is showing itself even in what is supposed to be a secret ballot for Speaker. This ought to be an occasion when every MP should consider themselves as non-party but truly independent, for once.

    reply: I believe in rule by the majority, with proper safeguards for minorities and strong opposition.

  7. Demetrius
    June 21, 2009

    Given the wide range of problems and the complexities facing the UK in the coming year, Parliament ought to be virtually in permanent session, with brief breaks in line with those in ordinary industry and commerce. As for who might be Speaker, if Ms. Beckett takes the job it will be the end of House of Commons as an effective body.

  8. Robert Eve
    June 21, 2009

    I can’t decide who is more depressing – Beckett or Bercow.

  9. Jon
    June 21, 2009

    I understand your argument but I would still like to see Ann Widdecombe as Speaker.

    As is mentioned the 10 months left will mean that not alot can be achieved between now and when many new MPs are elected. I would guess that many of those new MPs would have been elected on the basis of a more fair and honest Parliament.
    I would perhaps like those new MPs to have a say on who leads the House.

    We already know there is a lot of pressure to dumb down any changes. I have more trust in Ann Widdecombe to fight against that untill we have a new Parliament sitting. She can’t see the changes through to their end but she can try to prevent it from sinking before the next GE.

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  11. Jon
    June 21, 2009

    Another point from a member of the publics point of view is that I really only know a few.

    This is one of the highest offices there are, should it not be contested by people who have seen high office, have that experience and be known. Would the others really command the authority, weight and experience needed in that role. If this was a private company you would not be looking at middle managers to run the House.

    Parliament has lost trust, Ann Widdecombe could help restore that with the public, who can’t vote. This could be another own goal by Parliament if it ignores what the public might want.

  12. a-tracy
    June 21, 2009

    If you’re not all back until October why appoint anybody until then? Indeed why not just use the deputies until after the election. If Speaker Martin had gone off on long term sick is this what would have happened?

    Don’t you think it would be a good idea to have a speaker that wasn’t an MP. More of an elected (by the people) judge of the house.

    I’ve never heard of George Young so perhaps he’s ideal. I thought Anne Widdicombe would be ideal until I read your blog, however, if she was willing to stay on for three years (even though not an MP) I think she could tidy things up and get everyone in order.

    1. a-tracy
      June 21, 2009

      One more thought, perhaps the candidates should have one month each, an on the job trial.

  13. John Moss
    June 21, 2009

    Why should a new Speaker not be elected at the beginning of every new Parliament?

  14. RayD
    June 21, 2009

    I think you’re being a little hard on Ann there, John. If you have an objection, please state it. I expect there are many older voters such as myself who remember her as a slightly odd but basically honest character. And yes, I support her for the job, but only if she changes her mind about stepping down at the next election.

  15. Tony E
    June 21, 2009

    “The best way the Speaker could flex the power of the office to improve accountability would be to grant more requests for urgent debates on topics which the government refuses to table.”

    I absolutely agree with this. But the Labour party will chose the next speaker, and they won’t choose one who openly expresses a wish to follow that line!

  16. Simon
    June 21, 2009

    Ann Widdecombe voted in favour of exempting MP’s from the FOI Act thereby allowing them to keep their expenses secret. That hardly seems a good basis for setting about clearing up the corruption. She is part of the problem, not the solution.

  17. Mike Stallard
    June 21, 2009

    Please don’t be Speaker yourself. We need you here! Also, of course, when the economic muck hits the fan, we will need you even more then.
    I still think Frank Field might be the best person. He, and IDS seem to be the people who have the normal sort of non £64,000 p.a. to £140,000 p.a. person (before expenses) at the top of the agenda.
    The person who is elected will show us the character of the present parliament.
    I wonder who it could be?

  18. alan jutson
    June 21, 2009

    John better to have a Speaker who is elected by the new Members (after a general Election) who would know little about character, than be stuck with one for years that has been elected by the present MP’s out of spite, many of whom are already disgraced.

    Labour Whips will of course take advantage of their majority if they can.

    Ann Widdecombe is head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates when it comes to being untouched by the present scandle.

    The honest thing to do, would be to have a short term candidate who can clear the decks ready for the next person to take over, too many of the other candidates have too much baggage to do the job.

    Remember we have another year of expenses yet to be approved and published before the next general Election.
    How could a tainted MP/Speaker comment on the behavoiur of others, when the answer back would be, well you did it !!!!!!

    Why not have a vote for a speaker after every General Election ?

    If they are good at their job and command respect, then they will win a re-election and stay in their job.

    Why does a Speaker have to hold office until they decide to quit ????

  19. Patrick
    June 22, 2009


    I certainly hope you don’t go for the Speakership.

    I would imagine it is a source of deep regret and frustration to you that the media have fixed upon the ‘vulcan’ image of you that emerged at the time of your standing against John Major. For many lefties you apparently embody the unacceptable face of the nasty Tories. Idiots.

    If you can’t for reasons of political practicality be seen doing too much in front of the curtains, I do believe you have an enormous amount to contribute behind the scenes in an incoming Tory administration.

    If I was Osborne I’d kick King out pronto and invite you to be the Governor of the BoE. (Assuming you’d decline I’d ask you to be the unseen policy guru for Treasury matters and give you a new job title: Phantom Chief Secretary Whipper).

    Best wishes.

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