Race is on to replace John Bercow as Commons Speaker

Deputy speakers, Labour veterans and Tory MPs among the expected candidates

John Bercow has dramatically announced that he will stand down as Commons Speaker within weeks, sparking a race among MPs to take over the crucial position.

In an emotional speech, he told MPs he would resign on Monday night in the unlikely event they voted for an early general election. If, as expected, they do not support an early election, he will stand aside on 31 October.

MPs expected to stand for the post include the deputy speakers Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Eleanor Laing, Labour veterans Harriet Harman, Meg Hillier and Chris Bryant, and the Tory MP Sir Henry Bellingham.

The Speaker is the chief officer and the highest authority in the House of Commons. They chair parliamentary debate to call MPs to speak, to keep order, and to instruct when votes should be taken.

The Speaker is expected to remain politically neutral on all issues, and to continue this even in retirement. On appointment as Speaker, they resign from their political party. They continue to stand for election as an MP, but by tradition they are unopposed in their constituency by the major parties.

The Speaker has the power to compel MPs to withdraw remarks, to suspend individual MPs, or to suspend the whole sitting of the House of Commons in case of serious disruption.

Speakers are elected by MPs in a secret ballot. MPs are given a list of candidates and make their choice. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, the question is put to the house that he or she takes the chair as Speaker. If no candidate reaches 50%, the candidate with the fewest votes and those with less than 5% of the vote are eliminated, and MPs vote again until one candidate succeeds. 

Sir Lindsay Hoyle was elected Speaker on 4 November 2019, replacing John Bercow, who stepped down from the role having been elected as Speaker in June 2009.

The proposed timing for Bercow’s departure will be seen as a passing shot at his Brexiter critics because it could improve the chances of a remain-supporting MP succeeding him.

It also ensures that he is expected to still be in post during the remaining momentous weeks in the run-up to Halloween, when Boris Johnson has promised Britain will leave the EU.

In a break from normal convention whereby Speakers stand unopposed by the major parties at elections, the Conservatives had revealed on Sunday that they would challenge Bercow in his Buckingham constituency at the next national poll – whenever it is called.

Bercow made his announcement on Monday afternoon as his wife, Sally, looked on from the gallery, telling a hushed Commons: “At the 2017 election, I promised my wife and children that it would be my last.

“This is a pledge that I intend to keep. If the house votes tonight for an early general election, my tenure as Speaker and MP will end when this parliament ends.”

After a pause, and to the sound of cheers from Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, he said that if the house did not support an election, the least disruptive option would be for him to quit on 31 October– the current deadline for Brexit.

He added: “Least disruptive because that date will fall shortly after the votes on the Queen’s speech expected on 21 and 22 October. The week or so after that may be quite lively and it would be best to have an experienced figure in the chair for that short period.

“Most democratic because it will mean that a ballot is held when all members have some knowledge of the candidates,” he added.

Senior MPs have been quietly gathering support since January preparing for a race to replace Bercow after rumours he would stand down in the summer. Bercow had pledged to stand down after nine years in the chair when he took up the role in 2009, but delayed his departure following the 2017 election.

Hoyle is odds on to replace him according the bookmakers Coral, with Harman, a former leader of the house, at 4-1, followed by the former Labour chief whip Rosie Winterton and Bryant, a former deputy leader of the house.

Hoyle declared his candidacy on Twitter on Monday night, saying that “in unprecedented times it will be vital to have an experienced Speaker who can provide stability and leadership.

“I believe that I have proven myself to be independent and fair. I have ensured all members of parliament have been able to exercise their right to speak on behalf of constituents to hold the government to account,” he wrote.

Bryant, the MP for Rhondda, has previously said: “I think people who know me will know I will be ruthlessly impartial and I hope I could diffuse any tensions with very, very gentle humour.”

Traditionally, the two main parties have alternated the role of Speaker, but this tradition was broken by Labour in 2000 when Betty Boothroyd was replaced by Michael Martin.

Friends of Laing, a Conservative MP, have pointed out that the house will have every right to choose a Tory candidate. Some Brexiters are supporting Bellingham.

Bercow has been under pressure to stand down after being criticised in Dame Laura Cox’s report into bullying and harassment of staff last year.

During nine years in the Speaker’s chair he has clashed with prime ministers, survived attempts to oust him and spoken out against the US president, Donald Trump.

Bercow has also angered many in the government. He was accused of scuppering May’s Brexit deal after he stopped her from bringing back exactly the same bill unless the government asked a different question.

He has faced fierce criticism from Brexiters, who have questioned his impartiality and claim he has facilitated efforts by MPs to take control of Commons business in order to oppose a no-deal exit.

In parliament, Jeremy Corbyn praised Bercow for being a “superb” Speaker who had “totally changed the way in which the job has been done”.

He added: “This parliament is stronger for your being Speaker. Our democracy is the stronger for your being the Speaker.

“And whatever you do when you finally step down from parliament, you do so with the thanks of a very large number of people.”

The de facto deputy prime minister, Michael Gove, joked that he hoped Bercow would not take it personally when he voted for an early general election. “It is the case that however controversial the role of the backstop may be in other areas, your role as the backbenchers’ backstop has certainly been one that’s been appreciated by individuals across this house,” he said.


Rajeev Syal and Rowena Mason

The GuardianTramp

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