Last night, an arcane moment of back bench wrangling may interest Speaker-watchers.
The Speaker, knowing that Parliament is Procedure, campaigned for his candidate Charles Walker to be chair of the Procedure committee. Cynics say this was to ensure Speaker-friendly changes to Standing Orders are proposed and passed.
An example of this came to the floor of the House at 10pm last night. The first manoeuvrings to subjugate the Back Bench Business Committee to the Speaker’s purposes.
This committee has a special significance. It controls some parliamentary time, and control of time in the House is his drug of choice (his precious desire is to chair a House Business Committee and schedule Government business – that is the ultimate narcotic).
But last night, Andrew Lansley’s now-open war with the Speaker recorded a distinct if tiny victory.
Charles Walker’s proposed rule-changes were opposed by Lansley, the Labour front bench and the Back Bench Committee itself.
And Walker discarded his Motion as soon as he stood up. “It is unlikely I will put this to the vote tonight. Perhaps I have shown my hand too early, but . . .”
And as his incredulous Committee urged him to be strong, he explained: “I have been here since 110 o’clock this morning, and I have toured the tea rooms and I have toured the Library and all the other places where Members of Parliament work diligently through the day and I do not feel I have the support to carry the day, so it is better to take the fight to another day than to die on this day. I appreciate that is a slightly over-dramatic statement of the position, but why not, because it is late and I have had far too much coffee?”
He also made an egregious error procedural error, which we needn’t go into here. But for the chair of a Procedure committee to try and withdraw his Motion even though it was in the keeping of the House . . . ! (I can hear your sick gasp.)
Walker has made great play of his mental peculiarity suffering from some compulsive disorder. This looked more like attention deficit, but let that lie.
The larger proposition is this: the Speaker is carefully and quietly laying down the infrastructure for the most active speakership in parliamentary history, to start after the next election in a hung Commons.
His recent suggestion for a Speaker’s Commission (a novelty, unconstrained by existing rules, conventions, and existing solely under his direction) promises much. It is he says, to provide “a blueprint for action” and will find ways to introduce “flexibility about what is debated and how”.
That is – the public will make suggestions through the Speaker’s office and the Speaker will force the Government to make time to pay attention to him and his causes.
What else will he try for?
The Committee of Selection nominates Members for committee work. It controls the timing of scrutiny in Bill committees. It is an unelected committee stocked by Whips. If he can get this committee elected he will be able to run his own candidates and end up controlling not just the Chairs of Bill committees but the composition of the committees, and the timing of the business they undertake.
No small an expansion of Speaker-power.
And somehow, he will have another go at the Back Bench Business Committee. We know that from something his pet Chris Bryant let drop some time ago.
They want somehow to roll the Back bench Business Committee into a House Business Committee.
How this might happen is not clear. It is an enormously difficult task, faced with the hostility of both front benches, and the Standing Orders governing that committee.
But the Speaker’s cunning and determination can’t be overestimated.