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Outspoken stint by John Bercow has placed Speaker on political map

© PASpeaker John Bercow
Speaker John Bercow

Order! Order!

Name three Speakers of the House of Commons.

Go on, I bet you can’t.

Put it this way, I studied politics at uni and like to think I take a bit of interest in current affairs but I hit a brick wall at two.

So say what you like about John Bercow – and many do! – but one thing you cannot deny is that the man has sprinkled some stardust over what was for centuries a fairly fusty, bureaucratic role.

The only other one I could put a name to was Betty Boothroyd, the first and so far only lady to have sat in the Speaker’s chair for the 750 years the position has existed.

And even then I first of all misremembered her name as Hetty Wainthropp.

I’m actually annoyed at myself for not remembering the fellow who was the filling in that particular Speaker sandwich –Michael Martin, particularly as he spent nine years in the job.

A Labour MP, he hailed from my home town of Glasgow and was the first Roman Catholic to serve in the role since the Reformation (Bercow is the first Jewish Speaker) but had to involuntarily resign owing to his role in the expenses scandal that engulfed Parliament.

While Martin had slipped my mind, Bercow has placed the Speaker front and centre in Parliament, particularly as Brexit grinds on.

In fact, to the dismay of Brexiteers, he has abandoned his plans to step down as Speaker in the summer, instead staying in the role until the matter is settled one way or another.

A spokesperson for the Speaker’s Office said: “The Speaker was elected by the House in 2017 for the course of the Parliament.”

Bercow insists his job is to protect and act in the best interests of Parliament as a whole and not the government, and has denied all accusations of bias.

That, though, butters no parsnips with those who want to leave the EU and believe the Speaker has been using his position to frustrate their attempts to get a deal through Parliament.

They were especially furious when he refused to allow the government a third vote on its proposed Brexit deal, citing a convention dating back to 1604 that stated the same motion may not be proposed twice in one session.

This rule enforcement, plus the fact it is they who decide which amendments to a bill may be debated in the House, is where the Speaker’s power lies.

But what does the Speaker actually do?

He’s the presiding officer in the House of Commons, presiding over debates, determining which members may speak, maintaining order during debates and punishing those who break the rules of the House.

In the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales the job is simply known as the Presiding Officer – currently a task performed by former Labour MSP Ken Macintosh and Elin Jones AM respectively.

In Belfast, the current Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly is Robin Newton MLA and all have broadly similar roles and responsibilities to those of their counterpart in the Commons.

Unlike in the legislatures of many other countries, the Speaker – while remaining an MP – remains strictly non-partisan and renounces all affiliation with former parties when taking office and afterwards.

Bercow, for example, was a member of the Conservative Party and was on the right wing of the Tories until he changed his views after being elected MP for Buckingham, even being rumoured as likely to defect to Labour at one time.

If you wonder how they hang on to their seats, they stand as “The Speaker seeking re-election” on the ballot and the tradition – less well-observed in recent times – is that major parties do not stand against them.

MPs elect the Speaker from among their own ranks after a general election or on the death or resignation of the incumbent, and as the House customarily re-elects those who want to continue in the office, you could theoretically make it a job for life.

MPs could vote against re-electing a Speaker but that would fly in the face of convention – though it’ll be interesting to see if the deeply divisive Bercow is elected unopposed for a fourth time.

Upon election, they are appointed to the Privy Council and are therefore to be referred to as “The Right Honourable”.

The Speaker does not take part in debates or vote, except to break ties and even then the convention is that they cast the tie-breaking vote according to “Speaker Denison’s Rule”.

Named after John Denison, Speaker from 1857-72, the principle is to always vote in favour of further debate unless it had been previously decided to have no further debate, or in some cases to vote in favour of the status quo.

Its use is rare but it did come into play on April 3 this year when Bercow vetoed an amendment to a Brexit indicative vote.

The Speaker also performs administrative and procedural functions, and has the “right and obligation” to reside in Speaker’s House in the north-east corner of the Palace of Westminster.

Used for official functions and meetings, with private accommodation in a four-bedroom apartment upstairs, each day the Speaker and other officials travel in procession from there to the Chamber.

There’s also the not-insignificant salary, equal to that of a Cabinet Minister, which at the moment stands somewhere in the region of £145,000.

On retirement, Speakers are elevated to the House of Lords, prior to 1983 as viscounts and since then as life barons, sitting as crossbenchers.

Traditionally, Speakers wore a court dress outfit that included wigs, knee breeches, silk stockings and buckled shoes.

Boothroyd decided against the wig, Martin binned the rest of the regalia and Bercow wears a lounge suit under his black silk gown.

Bercow, 56, has already served as Speaker for a decade but that’s nothing compared to some of his more than 150 predecessors.

Arthur Onslow, the Whig MP for Surrey, set the record for length of service when he was elected in January 1728 and remained in post for 33 years.

That comfortably beat the two-year stint of his uncle, Sir Richard Onslow, while another ancestor – and another Richard Onslow – served for less than a year from 1566.

The office of the Speaker is almost as old as Parliament itself, the earliest mention being of a fellow called Peter de Montfort who presided over a parliament in Oxford in 1258.

However, the continuous history of the office as we know it began with Sir Peter de la Mare just over a century later.

At first they were basically agents of the crown, and after the Civil War worked in the interests of the House, with the current impartiality only becoming the norm in the mid-19th Century.

And it’s safe to say that after Mr Bercow’s reign, the Speaker will always be a high-profile position.