There are some things on which no Speaker can adjudicate. So the nine MPs who have nominated themselves to replace John Bercow on 4 November were relieved not to have to declare themselves for either Team Coleen or Team Rebekah. Harriet Harman could barely comprehend the pain she would feel if Chris Bryant leaked details of a fake Ocado account in which she had ordered non-Fairtrade bananas to the Sun, only for him to insist his own M&S account had been hacked. Wars had started over less.
The election of the Speaker will be conducted by a secret ballot of MPs. Meaning it will almost certainly be determined by a series of backroom deals and broken promises. Total votes cast generally equals 1,578 out of a possible 650. But before then the finest traditions of democracy and transparency prevailed and the nine candidates subjected themselves to a hustings for lobby journalists in Westminster Hall.
It wasn’t immediately clear why some of them were there. Conservative Henry Bellingham has spent the past 30 years in near anonymity, his only moment of stardom coming when he was chair of the HS2 committee. Two years of his life he may never get back as the project is likely to be scrapped at Christmas. His strongest selling point is that he is the direct descendant of the only man to have murdered a serving prime minister. Though in these woke times, many of us would settle for a straightforward kidnapping. By the end of the session, Bellingham couldn’t even guarantee he would vote for himself. At least that showed integrity.
Edward Leigh appeared to have put his name forward more for a laugh than anything else. He’d been around parliament a while and was getting a wee bit bored. Call it a late-life crisis. Deciding to raise your profile at the age of 69 is a tall order. Still, he looked quite pleased to be finally getting some attention but his main contribution was to insist the Commons be allowed to continue using robust language. “Surrender”, “Traitor” and “For you Fritz, ze war is ohffer” were just fine, though he drew the line at “Liar”. Because that would be the truth. Lying is one thing at which most cabinet ministers excel.
There was no mistaking why Shailesh Vara had nominated himself. Not because he thought he stood a prayer of becoming Speaker but as anger-management therapy. For months, if not years, Vara has been a knot of pent-up rage. Now he had found his voice. And it sure felt good. He hated John Bercow. More than that, he detested John Bercow. John Bercow had been a complete and utter disgrace in allowing parliament to take back control. The UK hadn’t voted to take back control of its laws only to relinquish them once more to a handful of MPs. Had he mentioned that he hated John Bercow? And breathe.
Vara’s outburst gave permission for the more serious candidates to express – ever so demurely – their own reservations about the Speaker. Meg Hillier, Bryant, Eleanor Laing, Rosie Winterton and Lindsay Hoyle all insisted they intended to do things quite differently than Bercow. Not because he had done anything wrong, just that some of his language and interpretations of parliamentary procedure had, perhaps, been questionable. Bercow had been too partial in his impartiality. Only Harman refused to say a word against Bercow. Then she is the Bercow Continuity candidate. Only without the bullying.
One thing on which all could agree was that they would choose to speak less from the chair. Though as everyone had to have the microphone forcibly removed from them as their answers rambled on, that sounded like a promise that might not be kept. Bryant practically begged lobby reporters to back him just so that he would no longer be forced to have an opinion on Brexit. Finally a solution to the Brexit deadlock. Dispense with the government and MPs and appoint the entire country to be Speaker. That way we could forget the whole thing ever happened.
Things took a more surprising turn when the frontrunner Hoyle declared the Commons didn’t just have a massive drink problem – it was also riddled with drug addicts. There were we thinking it was just the likes of Michael Gove doing the odd cheeky line of coke in the toilets to get him in the mood for a stint at the dispatch box, when the reality was that everyone was either out of their heads on crack and heroin or disappearing into a K-hole.
To make the whole place more orderly and family friendly, Hoyle even proposed that when the restoration work was complete there would be a shooting gallery to go alongside the public and press galleries. The most surprising thing about all this was the lack of surprise. Suddenly everything made sense. Here was the reason parliament couldn’t get anything done and was totally unmanageable. When the fun stops, STOP.