From the campaign trail: The Final Showdown

27 March 2015

The final hours of the 2014-15 session produced some of the most intense, emotive debate seen this Parliament.

The battleground was the usually dry subject of the procedure of the House of Commons. After recent controversy, MPs might have imagined that they had laid that spectre to rest with the appointment David Natzler as the Clerk of the House of Commons, but ministers clearly had other ideas.

Late on Wednesday night, outgoing Leader of the House of Commons William Hague and Deputy Leader of the House Tom Brake were bringing forward motions to change the Standing Orders of the House, in line with recommendations made by the Procedure Committee.

Three out of the four of these dealt with uncontroversial issues, like the deadline for the tabling of amendments, pay for the Petition Committee Chair, and the nomination of Deputy Speakers. 

However, included among them was a bombshell – a motion to let MPs choose between a secret ballot or an open division in electing a former Speaker to take the Chair at the start of a new Parliament.

Many MPs saw this surprise move as an attempt by the Government to prevent the re-election of incumbent Speaker John Bercow following the General Election.

The current Speaker has been described as a champion of the interests of backbench MPs, with many citing his record use of mechanisms such as Urgent Questions (over 200 granted) as an example of this.

Intrigue deepened when it was reported that there would be large numbers of Conservative MPs present in Westminster for a campaign meeting, whilst Labour MPs would be away preparing for the coming campaign period.

The stage was set for a thrilling piece of Parliamentary theatre, as the Speaker granted three UQs. According to his critics, this was to allow adequate time for supporters to return to the Commons ahead of the vote.

Opening the debate for the Government, William Hague attempted to defend the change on democratic grounds. He argued: “Most of the elections to offices in this House have been changed on that basis, and what remains […] is in my view an anomalous situation where an Open Division remains in one part of those procedures”.

However, Shadow Leader of the House Angela Eagle declared that Mr Hague had failed in his duty to be “the voice of this House in the Government”. 

“I am sorry to say that by supporting this grubby little plot against the Speaker on his last day as a parliamentarian, the Leader of the House has failed in his duty”, she said.

The debate may have been decided, though, when Conservative Procedure Committee Chair Charles Walker got his feet to speak about his Committee’s report upon which the Government had based the motion.

His voice cracking with emotion, Mr Walker told the House: “I have been played as a fool. When I go home tonight, I will look in the mirror and see an honourable fool looking back at me. I would much rather be an honourable fool, in this and any other matter, than a clever man”.

Pressed to a division, the result was close, but the motion was defeated as supporters of the Speaker mustered a majority of 26 votes. The result was met by cheers as Opposition members celebrated overcoming the Government’s scheme, waving order papers aloft.

John Bercow is free to return to the Chair. The day of high drama and tension was a fitting end to what has been a remarkable five years in Parliament.

Here at DeHavilland, we cannot wait for the next.

Mike Indian, Political Consultant
Mike Indian
Political Consultant

Mike Indian is Political Consultant and a member of DeHavilland’s Content team, leading on infrastructure and Scottish affairs. He leads on DeHavilland's dynamic content, specifically videos and podcasts, and regularly appears in the media as a political commentator. A graduate of Lancaster University, he has worked as a freelance journalist.