The election of the Speaker: myth and reality

When the newly elected House of Commons meets on Tuesday, its first task will be the election of the Speaker. In this post, Andrew Kennon explains how this will work and separates some of the myths surrounding the process from reality.

When the newly elected House of Commons meets for the first time on Tuesday, the first business – even before swearing in all MPs – will be election of the Speaker. John Bercow, who won his Buckingham seat with a majority of over 25,000 on Thursday, is expected to be re-elected unopposed, though prior to the election there was some talk of a challenge. What are the myths and realities surrounding this process?

Is the Speaker always re-elected unopposed?

This is what has happened in practice. Every Speaker who has been re-elected to the House – normally with other parties not putting up rival candidates in the constituency – has been re-elected to that post. But the House is given the opportunity to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Only if the answer is ‘no’ does it proceed to a full election.

The possibility of rejecting the incumbent has been raised in the media under Speaker Bercow. He was first elected in 2009, about a year before the 2010 general election. At that point, he was a Conservative MP on the opposition side of it he House. There was some speculation after the 2010 election that the new Conservative government would oppose his re-election, but this did not materialise. The same occurred after the 2015 election.

So: this is practice but not binding.

Does a new Speaker always comes from the Government side of the House?

This is what happened in practice until 1992 when Betty Boothroyd was elected. There is no reason to regard it as a convention.

Does the Speakership alternate between the two main parties?

Since Speaker Martin (Labour) succeeded Speaker Boothroyd (also formerly Labour) in 2000 this cannot be said to be a firm rule. Between 1965 and 1992 successive Speakers did come from the opposite side of the House to their predecessor – but, equally, they also came from the party in government at the time of their election. The House’s freedom to make its own choice among an array of volunteers probably means that any sense of it being the ‘turn’ of a particular party is out of date.

Is the Speaker’s term of office limited?

The average tenure in office since 1945 has been 7.3 years, but the last three Speakers served for nine, eight and nine years respectively. Most previous Speakers were elected at an age and stage in their career when it could be expected to be their last job. There is no formal term limit. Theoretically someone could continue in office indefinitely, provided they were re-elected as an MP and re-elected as Speaker at each general election. Conscious that he was significantly younger on election that recent predecessors, Speaker Bercow undertook not to continue for more than nine years. There has been some recent media speculation that the EU referendum result and the unexpected general election on 8 June have changed his intentions.

Does the Speaker have to be chosen from among the existing Deputy Speakers, and is it correct that they cannot be a former cabinet minister?

This has been the pattern since 1965, with two exceptions in 1971 and 2009. However, there is no procedural barrier to any member other than a current minister standing for the Speakership. The underlying assumption is that someone could not easily move immediately from a partisan front-bench role to the neutral Speakership and still command the confidence of the House. Five of the last ten Speakers have held senior government office at some stage, but two of them subsequently were Deputy Speakers, perhaps a sort of political cleansing process. It may well be, simply in terms of familiarity with chairing procedure in the House, that it would be difficult for someone without that expertise to be a convincing Speaker from the start. It is possible to imagine a former cabinet minister who commanded wide respect in the House being ‘dragged reluctantly’ to the chair if all the signs were propitious.

John Bercow was in fact the first Speaker elected since 1943 who had been neither a Deputy Speaker nor a minister. It should be remembered that he was elected in 2009 during the expenses scandal when he represented, more than other candidates with broader experience, a fresh face.

So: there is no firm rule.

Is the Speaker always elected by secret ballot?

The ballot procedure introduced in 2001 does provide for a secret ballot when choosing a new Speaker. Previously the House voted publicly in a series of binary choices between candidates. If there were ever to be a vote on the initial question — whether the previous incumbent should be re-elected — that would take place in the normal way on a yes/no vote in which individuals’ votes would be published. Some MPs have argued that that initial vote should itself be by secret ballot so opponents of the Speaker could vote freely without fear of the consequences. This was the issue which was unexpectedly brought to the floor of the House in the dying days of the 2015 parliament and defeated.

So: the re-election of the former Speaker is not by secret ballot.

Should a new Speaker be elected during, rather than at the start of, a parliament?

There is much to be said for the choice of a new Speaker to be separated in time from the appointment of new ministers straight after an election and for it to be made by MPs who have been in the House long enough to know the strengths of all the candidates. This points to a Speaker retiring gracefully between elections. It is thought that Bernard Weatherill wanted to do this before the 1992 election, but the Conservative government of the day did not want to face a by-election in his Croydon constituency. Perhaps influenced by that example, Betty Boothroyd did stand down after eight years in post in 2000, well before another general election was due.

So: there is no firm rule.

What has changed recently?

Past precedents are not always helpful, particularly since the competition for the post of Speaker has become more intense. Until 1992 there had not been several plausible candidates seeking election. 12 candidates in 2000 placed too much strain on the old procedure and it was reformed in 2001 to provide for a series of secret ballots, with candidates eliminated until one achieves a majority. That new procedure was used for the first time for the election of Speaker Bercow in 2009.

It seems implicit that this new procedure would be used when there was sufficient notice of a vacancy in the office of Speaker – either from a Speaker giving notice of intention to retire mid-term or by not standing for re-election to the House at a general election. In both cases, there would be time for candidacies to be canvassed, manifestoes drafted and MPs lobbied.

Does there have to be a by-election when the Speaker leaves office?

The convention is that the outgoing Speaker is immediately given a peerage (and a generous pension) and vacates his constituency seat, which requires a by-election. There is no statutory or standing order requirement for this. It is difficult to imagine a neutral Speaker resuming the role of a partisan MP but not impossible to envisage someone doing this as an assiduous constituency MP, involving themselves in good parliamentary causes but perhaps eschewing party controversy – and not resuming any party affiliation. One possible analogy recently has been Sir Alan Haselhurst. After 13 years as Deputy Speaker – when he had acted neutrally but did not have to give up his Conservative party affiliation – he returned to the backbenches in 2010 and served in the House for a further seven years till 2017.

So: it is possible but unprecedented for the former Speaker to remain as an MP.

What will happen on Tuesday?

1/ The House of Commons will assemble in the chamber at 2.30 pm with Kenneth Clark in the chair as Father of the House, the MP with the longest unbroken service.

2/ ‘The House [goes up to the House of Lords] to hear the Commission for opening and holding the Parliament, and the Lords Commissioners direct[s] the House to proceed to the Election of a Speaker and to present the Speaker-Elect in the House of Peers for the Royal Approbation.’

3/ The Father of the House ascertains whether the former Speaker, John Bercow, is willing to be chosen as Speaker. John Bercow says he is and a colleague formally proposes that he takes the chair as Speaker. That proposal is then put to the House right away without further discussion.

4/ If there are many shouts of ‘Aye’ and none of ‘No’, John Bercow is re-elected and takes the chair as Speaker for the fourth time.

5/ If there are a significant number of MPs shouting ‘No’, a full vote is held, using the division lobbies in the normal way and with each MP’s vote a matter of public knowledge.

6/ If, by a simple majority, the ‘Ayes’ exceed the ‘Noes’, John Bercow again takes the chair as Speaker.

7/ If, the ‘Noes’ are in the majority, the Father of the House adjourns the House to the next day. The following day sees the process of electing a new Speaker, with candidates, nomination forms, speeches of recommendation and a series of secret ballots.

How does the ballot process work?

The timescale is tight. Nominations would have to be tabled the following morning, supported by between 12 and 15 names. Three of these must be MPs from a party different from that of the candidate. No MP may sign more than one nomination paper. The ballot would take place that afternoon. This leaves little scope for hustings, soundings or understandings.

In 2009 there were ten candidates and the process took six hours. In the first ballot, the highest placed candidate achieved 179 votes out of the 594 cast. Four candidates with less than five per cent of the votes each were then eliminated. In the second ballot, the lowest candidate was eliminated and three others withdrew. This left just two MPs in the third ballot: John Bercow beat Sir George Young by 322 votes to 271.

What is the job description for the post of Speaker against which possible candidates will be assessed?

There is no formal job description. Any choice will be a matter of judgment about which of the desirable qualities is most important – commanding the respect of the House, acting as a neutral chair in the chamber, representing the House externally, supervising the administration of the House etc.

What would be best for the House of Commons?

My conclusion is that the House should not rush into electing a new Speaker straight after the general election but should expect to do so in about a year’s time. New MPs will have become familiar with the House, their colleagues and likely candidates for the vacancy. Potential successors would be able to assess their prospects in the new House. The election of a new Speaker would be separated from government reshuffles. The outgoing Speaker would be able to choose the precise timing of his departure. Manifestos and hustings would enable full discussion of the essential and desirable criteria for the post.

About the author

Andrew Kennon retired recently after nearly 40 years working in the House of Commons, the last five as Clerk of Committees. He is a trustee of the Constitution Society and an honorary professor at King’s College London.

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