The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has announced plans to step down from the role on 31 October. An election to replace him will take place on 4 November.
A new Speaker is elected at the start of each Parliament (i.e. after every general election); after the resignation, death or retirement of the incumbent; or if the sitting Speaker ceases to be an MP for any other reason. The rules governing the election of the Speaker are set out in Standing Orders (the parliamentary rule book).
If the Speaker from the previous Parliament wants to keep their post at the start of a new Parliament, then convention has been that they will be allowed to stand unopposed. A motion to select them as Speaker is formally proposed. This vote is usually taken ‘by acclamation’ (verbally, by MPs shouting in support or opposition to the motion). If MPs audibly oppose the motion, a full vote takes place by division (a formal vote, where MPs walk through the voting lobbies). If the motion is defeated, an open election process for the new Speaker begins the next sitting day.
In theory, any MP can stand to be Speaker. However, in practice, those on the frontbenches are unlikely to be able to convince the House that they could move directly from high party politics to the non-partisan role of the Speaker.
Candidates must be nominated, or ‘sponsored’, by 12 MPs (including at least three members from a different political party to the candidate), and each MP can only nominate one candidate. In 2009, at the last contested election, 10 MPs put their name forward.
Before 1992, the Speaker would usually come from the governing party at the time of their election. However, since then two Speakers (Betty Boothroyd and John Bercow) have been elected from the opposition benches. MPs could again choose to elect a Speaker who is not from the governing party.
In 2009, candidates issued manifestos and took part in unofficial hustings, organised by the Hansard Society (although these may not be held if a Speaker needs to be elected swiftly – such as following a general election). Those hoping to be Speaker may stand on a specific platform or reform agenda. For instance, in 2009, John Bercow – the current Speaker – stood on a platform of empowering backbenchers and increasing transparency in the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal.
In 2001, a new exhaustive secret ballot system was introduced to elect the Speaker, following recommendations made by the Commons Procedure Committee. However, as the first Speaker elected after the rule change – Michael Martin – stood unopposed, the new voting system was not used until 2009, during the election of John Bercow.
The exhaustive voting system works as follows:
- On the day of the election, written nominations for candidates for Speaker must be submitted.
- On the day of the election, the House meets at 2:30pm. The election is presided over by the Father of the House (the longest continuously serving MP – currently Ken Clarke).
- Each candidate addresses the House, with the order determined by lot.
- MPs are given a printed list of candidates and cast a single vote for their preferred choice.
- If a single candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the first round, a motion is put to the House asking MPs to confirm the appointment of the winning candidate as Speaker. This vote is usually by acclamation (verbally), but a formal vote will be held if there is audible opposition. If this motion is not passed, the entire process of selecting candidates and voting must start again.
- If no candidate secures 50% of the vote in the first round, the candidate with the lowest number of votes (plus any candidates with fewer than 5% of the vote) are removed from the ballot. Any candidate can also withdraw within 10 minutes of the first-round results being announced.
- MPs then vote again on the revised ballot paper, repeating the process until one candidate secures over 50% of the vote.
- Once the winner has emerged, they are ‘reluctantly’ dragged to the Speaker’s chair by their main sponsors – a symbolic tradition originating from the time when the Speaker would often have the challenging job of mediating between Parliament and the Monarch.
The multiple rounds of voting usually take place over one day. The time taken depends on the number of candidates, and the number of rounds of voting. It can take many hours. For example, in 2009, candidates began addressing the House at 2:30pm, and John Bercow was elected Speaker after three rounds of voting at 8:30pm.
It is estimated that each round of voting can take up to two hours.
There are no formal means of removing a Speaker from office – meaning they can usually choose when to leave the post.
However, Speakers can sometimes come under pressure to resign. For instance, Speakers can be subject to votes of no confidence which, if lost, would make it extremely difficult for them to remain in post. In 2009, following outcry over the expenses scandal, Michael Martin resigned as Speaker in anticipation of losing a no confidence vote. John Bercow has also come under pressure to resign, for perceived breaches of impartiality and following allegations about widespread bullying and harassment in Parliament. However, Bercow chose the date of his own departure, announcing in September 2019 that he would stand down at the end of the following month.
In 2015, the government made a controversial attempt to change the parliamentary rules. It proposed that any succesful challenge to a vote to re-appoint the current Speaker by acclamation should be followed a vote taken by secret ballot, rather than by a standard vote in the division lobbies. This was aimed at unseating Bercow, by providing MPs greater political cover to vote against his reappointment in a secret ballot. MPs voted against changing the rules.
A retiring Speaker will usually vacate their seat as an MP, triggering a by-election. Former Speakers are usually given a peerage and sit in the House of Lords as a crossbench peer, although under the government of Theresa May, it was indicated that a peerage for John Bercow may not be forthcoming.
Boris Johnson's government, which has been highly critical of Bercow, has not yet clarified its position on whether he will be offered a peerage.
Assuming that Bercow vacates his seat, a by-election will be triggered, although it is possible there will be a general election shortly afterwards anyway.