MPs will soon elect the 158th Speaker of the House of Commons. The new Speaker, who will be voted in on 4 November, will take over from a controversial predecessor at a time of great uncertainty and heightened political tensions – and will face a number of significant challenges both inside and outside the chamber.
As chair of the House of Commons Commission – the group of MPs with legal responsibility for running the administration of the House – the Speaker plays a crucial role in the management of the House.
The current commission succeeded in getting MPs to agree to leave the Palace of Westminster – a building judged to be at risk of 'catastrophic failure'– while it is ‘restored and renewed’. The next Speaker will need to lead efforts to make the public case for spending billions of pounds of tax payers money on the renovations, at a time when numerous public services are strapped for cash.
The Commons Commission also has responsibility for the employment of House staff, but has so far failed to oversee the full implementation of the recommendations of the 2018 report by Dame Laura Cox QC on how to tackle the House’s culture of bullying and harassment. Its ability to lead on this issue has been hampered by outstanding allegations of bullying against John Bercow, which he denies. To get a fully independent process in place, the next Speaker will need to show persistence and leadership if they are to overcome vested interests in parties and among backbenchers.
And the new Speaker will also need to consider how they can work with others to help ensure the safety of MPs and parliamentary staff, at a time when they face serious threats to their security. Not only do these threats cause significant distress to MPs and run the risk of deterring others from standing for election, but they can also affect parliamentary staff who cannot themselves speak out.
The Speaker is the ultimate arbiter of Commons procedure. In the context of Brexit and minority government, some of John Bercow’s decisions have caused considerable controversy. Whether or not the UK has left the EU on 31 October, the new Speaker will take over in an atmosphere of heightened political tensions – meaning every decision they take in the Speaker's chair will be heavily scrutinised.
As well as making day-to-day decisions, the next Speaker will need to consider whether the questions raised about House of Commons procedure since the 2016 referendum are worthy of deeper and more considered reflection.
These include, but are not limited to, the relationship between government and Parliament (including government control of time in the Commons); the mechanism for allowing emergency debates (Standing Order No.24); and the powers of the Commons over summoning witnesses. The Speaker could encourage Commons committees to focus on these areas and, if they thought the issues were important enough, even establish a Speaker’s conference as a way to conduct a formal inquiry.
The next Speaker must represent Parliament to the public and lead efforts to restore the House's reputation
Previous Speakers have seen their public role in very different ways. John Bercow sought to stimulate thinking about digital democracy and encouraged educational visits to and from the House to build awareness of its role.
The task he leaves for the next Speaker is arguably far more serious. Over the past three years, the value and efficacy of representative democracy – as represented by Parliament – have repeatedly been questioned. The government has presented Parliament as opposed to the will of the people – as represented by the exercise in direct democracy that was the 2016 EU referendum.
The new Speaker will need to consider how they should respond to this situation, how they can lead the House to enhance its reputation and what needs to be done to build public trust in Parliament as an institution.
Whoever succeeds John Bercow will face serious challenges. While they might be able to call MPs to order in the chamber, they will not be able to control the actions of individual members or the decisions that the House collectively takes. So while the new Speaker will have to decide on his or her priorities, their first task will be to work out how they can persuade MPs to help achieve those aims.