John Bercow riles Commons over plans to appoint Australian clerk

The Speaker's decision to advertise post for first time since its creation in 1363 has not gone down well on either side of house

John Bercow has made a point throughout his career of ensuring that he could never be accused, as Harold Wilson once was, of going "round the country stirring up apathy".

In his days as a student activist on the right, he upset opponents on the left and in the Tory centre ground as a leading figure in the Federation of Conservative Students, some of whose members wore "Hang Nelson Mandela" T-shirts.

Now, as one of the most notable reforming Speakers of the modern era, Bercow is demonised by traditionalists on the right who have never come to terms with his political journey into the progressive sphere and who struggle with the idea of parliamentary change.

An uneasy settlement at Westminster, in which Bercow is lauded as a reformer by his many fans in the Labour party and subjected to daily sniping from his former colleagues in the Tory party, is facing its greatest challenge since he assumed the Speakership in 2009. Bercow appears, for the first time, to be losing the confidence of supporters over his plans to appoint an official from the Australian parliament to the role of clerk and chief executive of the House of Commons.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary who proposed Bercow as Speaker when he went through the formality of standing again after the general election in 2010, has questioned the appointment of Carol Mills. A call by Rifkind for her appointment to be subjected to a hearing by a parliamentary select committee has been endorsed by the former Labour foreign secretaries Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett.

Carol Mills
Carol Mills Photograph: Kym Smith/Newspix/REX Photograph: Kym Smith/Newspix/REX

Sir Alan Beith, the senior Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the Commons liaison committee, on Friday wrote to the Commons leader, William Hague, calling for a pause in the appointment.

In a sign of the growing pressure, the Speaker is being warned by Tory frontbenchers that he will face unrest when parliament returns from its summer recess on Monday week – 1 September – if he refuses to give ground and agree to the parliamentary hearing. The Speaker is being told that MPs on all sides, who have doubts about the appointment of Mills, will have the perfect opportunity to cause trouble because the government and Labour frontbenches have agreed there will be no controversial votes during the brief two-week sitting. This is designed to allow MPs to campaign in the Scottish referendum on 18 September.

Downing Street, which is nervous of challenging the Speaker's authority on the appointment, is being advised by senior government figures that it should delay sending Mills's name to the palace for approval until parliament returns. "Downing Street will no doubt want to wait a bit and maybe send the odd question to the Speaker to avoid causing any embarrassment to the Queen," one Tory frontbencher said. "There is nervousness about rubber-stamping an appointment that seems to have been made during the summer recess."

The appointment of Mills, currently secretary of the department of parliamentary services in Canberra, who indicated on Friday that she had no plans to step aside, goes to the heart of Bercow's plans to reform the antiquated ways of Westminster. In the old days, Speakers tended to be elected with great promises to protect the interests of backbenchers only to adopt a soft approach to the executive.

Bercow has broken that tradition by hauling ministers before parliament on a regular basis and chiding whips when they encourage baying by their MPs. The Speaker regarded the appointment of a successor to Sir Robert Rogers as clerk, who is retiring a few months early after a series of clashes with the Speaker, as a crucial step in his campaign to modernise parliament.

The post was advertised for the first time since its creation in 1363, a firm of outside headhunters was appointed to identify suitable candidates and a "rigorous" two-stage interview process was held by a six-strong cross-party panel chaired by the Speaker. Mills emerged as the winner after impressing most, if not all, members of the panel with the strength of her management experience. David Natzler, deputy to Rogers and a respected expert on the procedures and privileges who was the internal favourite, was the runner-up.

Bercow is determined to press ahead with the appointment although Rogers, who formally retires on the day before MPs return and is strongly supporting Natzler, has put in place interim arrangements. Critics acknowledge Mills's management experience but say she has little experience in guarding the procedures and privileges of parliament. The clerk of the house, they say, is a key fixture in Britain's unwritten constitutional settlement as parliamentary adviser to the Speaker, the government and opposition.

The concerns about Mills's understanding of parliamentary privilege were fuelled by an email to the outgoing clerk Rogers from his counterpart in the Australian senate, Rosemary Laing, who said Mills's appointment would be an "affront" to the profession of clerks. Laing said that Mills appeared to place more focus on her department's HR role than on protecting privileges of parliament in her response to an enquiry into the use of CCTV footage to monitor the office of a senator. A parliamentary official, rather than the senator, was being monitored. Damian Green, the former Tory policing minister, said he was "deeply disturbed" by the apparent parallels between the use of CCTV footage in Canberra and the police raid on his office in 2008.

One former minister said: "This is terrible. The constitutional adviser to the Speaker has got to be someone completely versed in it. This isn't someone to run the plumbing and outsourcing the security system."

Sir Alan Beith said: "Although the roles of procedural adviser and chief executive could be split, the House has not made any decision to do so, and opinion is probably very divided on that issue. There is a real fear that the job of clerk of the House is being changed without consultation with MPs and committee chairs."

Senior members of the government, who dream of the day when Bercow is forced from the Speaker's chair in an operation with no ministerial fingerprints, are sensing that the moment may be edging closer.

"I don't think this is going to be fatal or terminal for the Speaker," one Tory frontbencher said. "But this will be quite a dent for the Speaker."

Critics are dreaming of a showdown. "Maybe he feels this is a resigning issue for him," one Tory joked of the Speaker. "That would be a great tragedy for Westminster but I am sure we could cope."


Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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