Page last updated at 06:46 GMT, Tuesday, 18 May 2010 07:46 UK

John Bercow's critics to challenge his role as Speaker

By James Landale
Deputy political editor

John Bercow
Mr Bercow succeeded Michael Martin as Speaker last year

John Bercow is set to become the first Speaker in living memory to have his re-appointment challenged by a vote in the House of Commons.

Normally incumbent speakers are "re-elected" unanimously without the need for the Commons to divide.

But a handful of MPs are determined to force a vote on Tuesday so they can voice their objections to Mr Bercow and allow the Commons to express a view.

MPs have not voted out an incumbent Speaker for 175 years.

The last was Speaker Manners-Sutton, an old Etonian high Tory opposed to political reform, who was ousted in 1835 by a Whig-dominated parliament determined to push through radical change.

Ayes vs Noes

After lunch on Tuesday, at about 1430 BST, the august figure of Sir Peter Tapsell MP will rise to his feet.

Sir Peter is Father of the House of Commons, a role he has assumed because he is now the MP who has been in Parliament for the longest unbroken period, in his case since 1966.

In this role, he is in charge when there is no Speaker and it is he who will ask Mr Bercow if he is willing to stand again.

In a moment of rare brevity, Mr Bercow will indicate that he would be honoured to continue to serve and remain in his sumptuous lodgings beneath Parliament's clock tower.

Mr Bercow's opponents object to his decision to ditch some of the Speaker's ceremonial dress, his wife's pro-Labour messages on Twitter, and what they claim is his lack of authority, respect and impartiality in the House

The former Conservative Defence Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, will then make the case for Mr Bercow to stay put.

When Sir Malcolm has said his piece, Sir Peter will put the motion "that John Bercow do take the chair of this House as Speaker".

There will be many shouts of "aye" but a handful of MPs will shout "no". They will include people like the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries and the Labour MP Kate Hoey.

Mr Bercow's opponents object to his decision to ditch some of the Speaker's ceremonial dress, his wife's pro-Labour messages on Twitter, and what they claim is his lack of authority, respect and impartiality in the House.

No whip

Some Labour MPs believe he has failed to defend them and others from the new expenses regime which they consider to be harsh and unfair, particularly to those with young children. Some MPs also believe the new House should have the right to choose a new Speaker.

There are some MPs who hope that Sir Peter will ignore the "noes" if they are too few and too quiet. But most expect that Sir Peter will have no choice but to call a division.

John Bercow has his opponents, but he will win. Why?

  • Most of the front benches will support him. There is no official whip - this is a House of Commons not a party matter - but the main party leaderships do not want a row over the Speakership and will make their support for Mr Bercow known. Some senior Tories at the highest level of government have their reservations about Mr Bercow, but will bite their lips.
  • Most new MPs will support him. Remember there are 227 new MPs and most are still trying to find out where their lockers and loos are located. It will be their first time in a division lobby. Woe betide any who incur the unofficial wrath of their whips so early on in this Parliament. Or make a fool of themselves by voting in the wrong lobby by mistake.
  • It is not a secret ballot. Thus anyone who votes against the Speaker will be known and can expect to be called but rarely in future debates. The procedure committee earlier this year recommended that the re-election of the Speaker be a secret ballot. But the then Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, chose never to put this recommendation to a vote in the Commons. Tory MPs say she told them that she did not want to give them "John Bercow's head on a plate". If there were a secret ballot, Mr Bercow's fate would be much less secure.
  • But, watch for the abstentions. Many MPs who object to Mr Bercow will register their opposition by just not voting at all. This is not a whipped division - they do not have to turn up.


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