Are they reflecting a separate media contest?
The election of a new Speaker of the House of Commons will take place on Monday June 22nd, with the Father of the House presiding from the Chair. Under the revised Standing Order number 1(b), the winner will be selected through several rounds of secret ballot preferential voting. The change in system obviously has a huge impact on the eventual victor, but it is only one of a number of significant changes since 2000.
The House is choosing a new Speaker after a long term in office by Michael Martin, whom many felt was a partisan choice by Labour, and thus the sensitivity around the possibility of a third Labour Speaker in a row is felt on all sides. Some Labour MPs (such as Tom Harris) have openly stated they will vote for a Conservative, following the maxim of “Caesar’s wife”. Furthermore, and somewhat unexpectedly in some quarters, this vote will take place whilst Labour still command a decent majority in the Chamber.
Thirdly, the extraordinary circumstance of the Expenses Crisis in which Martin was forced to resign will put particular emphasis on the reforming credentials and personal probity of the candidates. In 2000, attributes such as being a Parliamentarian first and foremost, and not having held senior party office, were considered paramount: this may not be the case this time.
Whilst all these make the contest an anomalous case, the media interest and speculation (translated I think into a demand by the public-as-vocalised-in-the-press for reform) have made this once private and Parliamentary affair into a public contest. Each of the candidates must endure trial by media, and the partisan horse race that infuses most political coverage is being injected into voting expectations. It is reported that Labour might choose Jon Bercow to annoy the Tories, or that the Conservatives might annoint a third Labour Speaker in the guise of Frank Field. Eager to trade on the star quality of ‘personality’ politicians, we see calls for Anne Widdicombe, Vince Cable, David Davies, and other strange candidates emanating from the pages of the Fourth Estate.
And this is my concern.
Every conversation I have had with MPs since the day of Martin’s statement has been completely divorced from the names, feuds, partisan positions, and Big Name contenders that I read in the press. Whilst this would not normally bother me, this strange media campaign has made some of these contenders into favourites on the various betting markets. When I speak to MPs privately, I hear the same names that were mooted months ago, before this vacancy arose, and they are the names of members who always had cross-party support, and had long cultivated themselves to be suitable for the Speakership.
I am becoming of the opinion that there are two overlapping Speaker’s contests going on – between the Big Name, known-to-the-public, media-driven candidates on the one hand; on the other, between the Old School candidates who would have been chosen if Martin had retired in a year or so, and ExpensesGate had never happened. I do not think this makes them less capable of reform, or less suitable in any way, I merely posit that the real voting choices being made by MPs might not accord with the lists of political Galacticos in the press.
It was suggested to me that maybe the public pressure, the press coverages of expenses etc might actually have the effect of altering MPs minds, making them amenable to these Big Name candidates. That might be true: a sort of Parliamentary Heisenburg Principle might perhaps apply, but this is where the radical new voting system might actually prove to protect the more conservative nature of the House.
When each candidate was moved as an Amendment to the Motion to Elect, then all votes were publicly recorded for Hansard. I can understand that, if this system still pertained, that MPs might feel the need to elect a Speaker favourable to the public (and by implication, well-known): the damage of ExpensesGate might have led them to acknowledge public anger and to support a Vince Cable or Frank Field as a public act of contrition. But the new system is secret ballot. In short, MPs actually have the freedom to support Old School candidates, supported on the basis of the old criteria, without being seen to oppose the calls for a publicly-popular candidate.
If I am correct, the many column inches devoted to Frank Field, Jon Bercow, Anne Widdicombe, Vince Cable and Margeret Beckett are utterly ephemeral. The perceived partisan factions supporting a candidate are a valiant attempt to manufacture horse-race politics where little exists. I suspect that for all the horror of the Daily Telegraph’s wonderful Inquisition, that little has actually changed at the Palace of Westminster, and in this most sacred and private of votes, that MPs will revert to their original sense of who might make a good Speaker of the House. If I am correct, then the value lies with candidates like Sir George Young, Sir Alan Haselhurst, Sir Alan Beith and Sir Patrick Cormack. Richard Shepherd too, I would class with the Old School candidates, though he best meets many of the requirements of the former list as well.
The media must find a horse race, filled with drama and personality. The Speakership election has traditionally not been that, though ExpensesGate should perhaps have made it so. However, I think the secret ballot will allow MPs to revert to their more traditional bases for selection, and that the market might find that it has been led star-gazing whilst a Knight of the Realm takes a seat that was always his to take.
We shall see.
My previous article on the Speakership, which did not forsee the means of Martin’s early exit but might be useful nonetheless, can be found here
I will be following the election from the Public Gallery on the day – Twitter updates when I am able will be found by following @Morus1516