But if there is to be another female Speaker, Eleanor Laing is the better bet
The last few weeks seem to have been filled with as many attempts to defy convention and accepted norms of rules and behaviour within Westminster as possible. There’s a certain irony, therefore, that in the election to replace John Bercow as Speaker, a convention many MPs may feel bound to respect a convention – that the Speakership should alternate between the main parties – which is of recent innovation and which came about primarily by happenstance, albeit a happenstance overlaid by a perceived fairness.
The much older convention was that the Speaker came from the governing party. Far from adhering to the ‘rotation’ principle, Betty Boothroyd was the first Speaker to be elected when his or her party was out of office since 1835 (and even then, Speaker Abercromby’s Whigs held a majority of seats in the Commons despite Peel having just formed a brief minority government). In fact, Abercromby would be the first of a sequence of six Whigs / Liberals who would, between them, occupy the chair for seven decades.
The change in accepted or understood principle presumably came about because the Speakership did alternate on four successive occasions between 1965 and 1983 as a result of each vacancy falling following a change of government. Even in 1992, Boothroyd’s election owed more to her being a much more widely acceptable candidate than Peter Brooke, who had been a serving cabinet minister less than three weeks earlier.
Still, despite Boothroyd being followed by Labour MP Michael Martin in 2000, a belief in rotation as a beneficial principle, if not an iron law, clearly exists. What are we to make of that in the upcoming election to replace John Bercow?
Clearly, Labour MPs start at an advantage and this is reflected in the betting odds with Lindsay Hoyle (evens, Betway) and Harriet Harman (5/2, Ladbrokes) leading the way. The first Tory on the list is another of the Deputy Speakers, Eleanor Laing, in fourth at 20/1 (bet365).
Quite why the odds are as close as they are is a mystery to me. Hoyle is by far the most capable of the field and has demonstrated himself to be a very good Deputy Speaker. I see no reason why he should struggle to gain cross-party support.
Harman, by contrast, is not only a former front-bencher of long standing and without experience in the chair, she remains wedded to gender politics, asserting as part of her campaign that parliament should elect a woman to show that it had ‘changed’. Presumably the election of Boothroyd didn’t do that. But I can’t help but feel that her Boris-like sense of entitlement is something of a hindrance. She assumes both that men – whatever their ability – should step aside because of their sex, and that once it’s agreed that the Speaker should be a woman, it should naturally be her. In fact, if it is to be a woman, Eleanor Laing would be a better choice.
However, the election rules will work against Harman, who I can’t see picking up much support at all among Tory MPs. The system used is similar to the method for the MPs’ rounds of the Tory leadership election: all candidates with less than 5% are eliminated in the first round (or the lowest-scoring, if all receive at least 5%), after which it’s a straight exhaustive ballot apart from that candidates can withdraw even if they win election to the next round.
Of the four Tory aspirants, Edward Leigh, Shailesh Vara and Henry Bellingham are not entirely absurd candidates but it’s hard to see from where they gain even modest support. If they do go out early, that would leave only one Tory – Laing – and several Labour ones. For both that reason and because she’s an experienced Deputy Speaker, she could poll very strongly in the middle rounds. To my mind, 20/1 is worth taking: dynamics within a race can transform the outcome but even if they don’t, there’s a trading bet to be had.
It’s true that Laing would break the ‘convention’ of rotation, although how many Tory MPs consider Bercow – who was largely elected by Labour MPs in the first place – as a legitimate Tory nomination is another matter.
However, for those of us with long memories, this all sounds a bit like the run-up to Labour’s 2007 leadership election, when the speculation was on who might challenge Gordon Brown, which ignored the plain fact that it really didn’t matter: Brown was going to steamroller any opposition. To me, the first question of the contest is ‘why wouldn’t you vote for Lindsay Hoyle?’, to which there are precious few good answers.
The fact that Harman is campaigning primarily on parliament making gestures at such a critical time for parliament and the country works strongly against her. In truth, by glaring omission, it emphasises the need for the person who takes on the role to actually understand it inside out, to have the ability to control the House, and to treat members fairly (and, ideally, respectfully).
It is possible, I suppose, that Hoyle could be caught between Tories backing their own, and Labour MPs making political gestures or falling prey to Rosie Winterton’s overtures (Winterton is both a Deputy Speaker, albeit the most junior one, and also a former Chief Whip with the skills and knowledge that brings). I doubt it though. Evens is a huge price in the circumatances and, in my opinion, anything better than 1/2 is value.