The most visible role of the Commons Speaker is in the chamber, guiding the proceedings of the House. It is both vital and necessary – every situation is different, and someone must make a judgment about which rules apply and how.
Some of the judgments made by John Bercow were controversial because they seemed to depart from previous precedents. This is not in itself reason to question them – a significant part of Commons procedure is made up of precedents established by successive Speakers as they have encountered new circumstances and interpreted the existing rule book to deal with them. As Bercow himself argued: “If we were guided only by precedent, manifestly nothing in our procedures would ever change.”
The circumstances of the last Parliament meant the Speaker’s decisions were bound to be controversial
The last Parliament certainly delivered ‘new circumstances’. A minority government, governing in a confidence and supply arrangement, attempting to deliver a highly contentious policy based on a finely balanced referendum outcome which divided the Commons, political parties and the country. Mix in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act preventing the government from triggering an election, a government anxious to limit parliamentary interference and backbenchers willing to legislate against its wishes, and it is hardly surprising decisions made from the chair were controversial.
Bercow argued that his interpretations of procedure – allowing the House to amend a business motion and vote on emergency debates, for example – were designed to ensure the House was able to make the decisions it wanted. And the fact that once given the opportunity the House often found the majorities to take those decisions – albeit against the government’s wishes – could be seen as vindication of his approach.
But just because a precedent has been set, it does not mean it will necessarily persist. A later precedent can supersede an earlier one (which may be consigned to the footnotes of Erskine May as a ‘bad precedent’). And the House can always decide to amend its standing orders if it wishes to do so. A government of any colour with a majority after the general election might well decide it would be desirable to use that majority to ‘clarify’ rules which have been interpreted against the interests of the executive. The meaning of the term ‘forthwith’ and the option of debating and deciding a ‘substantive motion’ under the emergency debate procedure (SO No.24) are two prime candidates for such clarification.
A large majority would make it relatively easy for a government to pass standing order changes. But it is not necessarily clear that MPs will acquiesce readily to such a move. Bercow’s legacy extends beyond setting specific precedents to deeper changes in the culture and expectations of the Commons. And those changed expectations may make MPs less willing to comply with government plans.
A government with a small majority, or governing as a minority, might not find it easy to get MPs to agree permanently to relinquish some of the opportunities they have been offered in this Parliament. Giving away the option of voting on an emergency debate motion might seem risky, for example, particularly if MPs suspect that the government might otherwise try to limit opportunities for them to express their views.
This Parliament has seen a breakdown in party discipline in both the main parties. MPs have been more ready to rebel against the party whip – a Rubicon which once crossed on one issue becomes easier to contemplate on others. At the same time, MPs have looked across party lines to build majorities to defeat the government. The habits and relationships that have been forged in the heat of Brexit may yet return to trouble future governments.
The culture change brought about during Bercow’s speakership – by the combination of Brexit, minority government and his personal approach to the role – will have consequences for his successor as well as the government. MPs are now used to having a Speaker who will stand up for their rights and furnish them with valuable opportunities to hold the government to account. They might have found it hard to manage their diaries when Bercow allowed PMQs and statements to run on and on, but they also valued the virtual guarantee that they would get to put their question to the minister. An unpredictable start time for the House’s main business caused by Bercow’s predilection for granting Urgent Questions may have been annoying, but the opportunity to force ministers to provide answers on topical issues was often useful.
Unless the general election delivers a government with a substantial majority, it is likely that any policy on Brexit will remain contentious in Parliament. It seems inevitable that Sir Lindsay will be called upon to interpret procedures on which John Bercow made contentious decisions. The spotlight will be firmly on him as he decides whether to uphold Bercow’s precedents, and while he has promised to be a different sort of Speaker he may well find that MPs are resistant to change.
Any new government, however, will be hoping fervently that he returns to earlier practices, swinging the pendulum of control back from the legislature towards the executive.