GE2015 minus 43: speak softly… or alternatively be The Speaker

Posted: 25 March 2015 in general election 2015, politics
Tags: ,

With Twitter and other social media completely swamped today with reactions to the BBC’s decision to fire Jeremy Clarkson (ok, ‘not renew his contract’), it’s easy to forget for a moment that there’s an election in 43 days. And, although the words are overused, it’s an important one that, right now, the results of which are entirely unpredictable.

There are only two predictions as to the result which I feel fairly confident in making:

(a) no party will get an overall majority.

(b) David Cameron will be Prime Minister on the morning of 8th May.

Note that I don’t say that he’ll be Prime Minister by the close of play on that day, but of course he’ll be Prime Minister. Indeed, all current ministers will be still in office until and unless David Cameron can tell the Monarch that he is unable to command a majority in the House of Commons and also recommends his successor. The Queen, you see, while theoretically able to choose her Prime Minister, won’t ever do it. For her to do so would be to excercise a power that, as I say, she theoretically has, but can never use.

One of the quirks of our constitutional settlement and the consequences of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is that while every member of parliament ceases to be a member of parliament the moment parliament is prorogued, the offices of the Prime minister and all his ministers remain in existence at all times, and someone must be there to fill the office. So, David Cameron is Prime Minister, George Osborne is Chancellor of the Exchequer, and all the rest of the ministers remain in their positions until or unless someone new ‘kisses hands’ with the Monarch and is formally asked to form a government as Prime Minister.

 There’s only one MP who, while not being an MP after Prorogation (see above), remains a servant of the House of Commons during the interregnum between one parliament ending and the moment a new one is formed: the Speaker of the House of Commons. Strictly speaking, he ceases to have any obligations as Speaker, but he’s not kicked out of the Speaker’s House until either he loses his seat (rare, but it has happened) or he is not re-elected as Speaker on the first day of the new Parliament. The Speaker is elected (or re-elected) in a ceremony that goes back hundreds of years but by a process that has only existed since the fallout after the the fiasco of Speaker Martin’s election. Speaker Bercow was the first to be elected under the new system in 2009, and he was re-elected in 2010. I have no doubt whatsoever that he’ll be re-elected this time around. But if the House of Commons is actually sitting during his election, who presides? The Speaker can’t, because officially there’s no speaker. Who actually presides is the “Father of The House”, the MP with the longest consecutive service as an MP (That consecutive is important; if they’d been in the House for 30 years, but were unseated in the 1997 election only to be re-elected in 2001, they’ve only been in parliament for 14 consecutive years…) The current Father of the House is Sir Peter Tapsell, a man whose presentation and speaking voice seem to come from anther age. Indeed, when he talks about The Crimean War, one suspects that he might be talking from experience. However, he’s standing down at this election, so all things being equal, the next Father of the House is likely to be Sir Gerald Kaufman who was first elected in the 1970 election. But, I hear you cry, what about Kenneth Clarke, Dennis Skinner and Michael Meacher, who also took their seasts after that election. Well, the rules say that when members have the same length of service, it comes down to whoever actually took their oath first. And Kaufman was first, followed by Clarke, Meacher and finally Skinner.

Speaker Bercow is admired (or detested) rather than liked, and his personal qualities are well known to be less than idea; to describe him as ‘abrasive’ is probably understating it, but I’m a huge fan of him as a Speaker. He’s hauled more ministers into the Commons to answer urgent questions than many of his predecessors and he’s definitely paid more respect to the idea that the purpose of the House is to hold the Government to account. And I like the idea of a Speaker who’s not worried about telling members they’ve spoken for too long without reaching a point, including the Prime Minister on one notable occasion.

His immediate predecessor was a disaster; Speaker Martin’s tenure was marked by deserved disrespect towards his office and he was so wrapped up in the idea of being Speaker that he never quite seemed to come to terms with the actual job. But his predeccesor was one of the best in my lifetime; Speaker Boothroyd was respected by all and liked by many, and if you have some time and want to enjoy her at the peak of her Speakership, fortunately, YouTube has many examples.    

Until tomorrow…



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