More 'grubby' politics - the coalition's last day in Parliament.

By Virginia Moffatt
March 27, 2015

Yesterday (26 March 2015) was the last full session in the House of Commons before the General Eection period starts. Most such days go unmarked, but the grubby politics that surrounded the decision to change the rules on Speaker elections are likely to be remembered for a long time to come.

To many voters, a debate on how Parliament chooses its next Speaker of the House, particularly when set against the issues voters most care about, the NHS, immigration, education, might seem irrelevant. But the significance of this vote is twofold. Firstly, it is revealing about the nature of Cameron's premiership and secondly it highlights why the democratic process so urgently needs reform.

At first glance, the proposal – that future Speakers should be elected by private ballot rather than public vote which might stop many from expressing their true views – seems a fair and reasonable one. But that is not what is at issue. The problem is the way that the debate was arranged and why. The suggestion that the subject be discussed in the House of Commons, came from the procedure committee that determines such matters. Though only two members were in favour of the measure, all felt it was important to be put it to MPs to decide, with a clear proviso that this happened well before the end of the Parliament and certainly not on a Thursday when fewer members would be around.

Although the procedure committee made this recommendation in 2013, the Leader of the Commons waited until the last week the House was sitting to schedule the debate for the final day. He did this without talking to the Opposition or key people in the Conservative party, including Charles Walker, the chair of the committee.

Furthermore, an election briefing meeting was planned for Conservative MPs to coincide with the time of the vote, so that they could be rushed over to make the right choice, at a time when many Labour MPs likely to oppose the motion would already be on the way to their constituencies. None of which reflects well on William Hague, or David Cameron, who must have approved such an approach. Nor does it reflect well on them that the reason behind such behaviour is that David Cameron and his Cabinet dislike John Bercow, the current Speaker, and the move was widely seen as making it easier to replace him. No wonder the MP for Hampshire, Julian Lewis, stated in an email "One need not be a particular admirer of the Speaker to realise that this is no way for decent people to behave."

Fortunately, the "shabby" and "squalid" behaviour of the Leader of the Commons was matched by members of his own party being prepared to stand up against it. With MPs such as Lewis, David Davies, and Jacob Rees-Mogg criticising the move and a powerful speech from Charles Walker stating that he had been "played for a fool" the decency of the Commons reasserted itself. True, it suited the Labour party to win a fight on the last day of Parliament, but they too were justified in their anger at the lack of transparency and due process. And whilst (in scenes reminiscent of ‘West Wing’) you could criticise Bercow for allowing emergency questions to delay the vote so Labour supporters could be there, it is understandable why such action was necessary.

In the end, Bercow won, and in doing so demonstrated quite why he is so divisive. His strong put downs of those who questioned his right to be in the Chamber, are a clear indication of why some MPs appreciate his refusal to kowtow to anyone, his emotional response to the support he received reflected the warmer parts of his personality. After all this is a Speaker who has introduced a crèche into the Commons, set up equality groups and often acted as a check to the Prime Minister. On the other hand, his malevolent stare to the front benches after his victory showed why many dislike him and consider him arrogant.

So what does this sordid story tell us about the Prime Minister? Well for one thing, it demonstrates the lack of transparency and fair play that has dominated David Cameron’s time in office. I first noticed this during the passage through the house of the Welfare Reform Act. The Prime Minister was determined this flagship bill would pass despite its many flaws. The House of Lords thought otherwise, sending the bill back time and again with amendments to take out the ‘bedroom tax’, the cap on benefits, changes to Disability Living Allowance and many more.

Previous administrations would normally have responded to such critique by recognising the problems and accepting the amendments. Not this government. Every time they were defeated in the Lords the amendments were overturned by the Commons until, with time running out, they pushed the Act through using the obscure Parliamentary rule of financial privileges, an act that was heavily criticised at the time .

Similar tactics were used to push through the unpopular 2012 Health and Social Care Act (despite it not being in the Conservative manifesto and despite David Cameron’s promise of no top-down reorganisation of the NHS). Furthermore, the then Secretary of State, Andrew Lansley, repeatedly refused to publish the Risk Register that many felt highlighted the dangers the legislation posed to NHS services.

These are only two examples that demonstrate the Bercow affair is not a one off. I could have cited more. If there is one thing that has characterised the Cameron administration, it has been the Prime Minister’s willingness to conduct his government's affairs in secret, abuse parliamentary process to get his own way, and continue with the swaggering belief that he is always right, encapsulated yesterday by his bullish comment, “I wouldn’t miss this for the world”. And whether you agree with Conservative policies or not, on too many occasions in the last five years, the tactics used to win have been less than edifying.

The other reason yesterday’s debate matters is that it highlights an ongoing problem with political process. The plot to win this vote relied on Conservative MPs being on site en masse, to be herded across at the critical time without having heard the arguments, and voting as they were told. One of the most dispiriting things about watching legislation be passed is the number of times debates are conducted in an empty chamber, with MPs being corralled in at the closing stages having been whipped to vote for the party line. All of which makes for poor decision making and leaves many a politician living to regret their support for an Act when they fully realise the implications of their vote.

Whilst some, like the Liberal MP Andrew George, at least have the decency to try and make amends, we would surely have better bills if the Commons listened to the Lords more, and if individual MPs weren’t punished so heavily for defying the whip.

Which leads me to conclude that perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking just about secret ballots to choose the Speaker, perhaps we need them on every vote. Then, only then, we might get the democracy we deserve.

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© Virginia Moffatt is chief operating officer of Ekklesia. Before working for Ekklesia, she spent 30 years working in services for people with learning disabilities, most recently for Oxfordshire County Council.

*More on the issues in the 2015 General Election from Ekklesia: general election

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