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.