John Bercow’s intention of being Parliament’s “ambassador” is evolving into something grander.
In the chamber, his condescension towards Members has become quite princely.
In the last month:
Mr Speaker: (To Simon Burns) He’s a lucky chappy; let’s call the fellow from Chelmsford. (Note royal ‘we’).
Mr Speaker: (To Ian Paisley) Order. The hon. Gentleman has already had one go. His appetite ought to have been satisfied for now. He seems to be a hungry caterpillar, but he will have to wait. Never mind.
Mr Speaker: I call the aviation Minister no less, Mr Robert Goodwill.
Mr Speaker: (To Francis Maude) Order. I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. He is plodding on to the best of his ability, but I say to him politely that . . .
Mr Speaker: I wondered whether guidance was being proffered, but it was merely an expression of interest, in the form of a genuflection, from the Clerk at the Table.
Mr Speaker: The principals are present and correct and we can proceed with questions to the Prime Minister.
This is very far from the tradition of Speaker Lenthall (who famously had tongue to speak only as the House directed).
But such comic grandeur shouldn’t blind his critics to the Speaker’s serious purposes and abilities.
There is the change to SO33 that he has – amazingly – been able to get onto the Order Paper for Thursday (it will pass).
It provides for the Speaker to select up to four amendments to the Queen’s speech and in its arcane way, represents a significant expansion of a Speaker’s ability to influence events.
The last I heard of this proposal, it was rejected by the Government’s business managers so fiercely there was no possibility it would ever get on the order paper. Now, here it is. Why? There will be more than one explanation. But it has the support of Charles Walker (the Speaker-backed chair of the Procedure committee, remember) and therefore of the Speaker.
What does it matter?
Imagine an inconclusive outcome to the next election. A minority Tory Government decides to struggle on. The first test of confidence will be the Queen’s speech. The opposition and minor parties each have an amendment, but there’s a rebel Tory amendment on Europe as well.
If that is selected, it will split the Tory party and bring down the Government before it has started. What a princely victory for the Speaker that would be.
This is the gift Andrew Lansley has made to the Speaker’s party. He thinks his legacy will be e-petitions. Perhaps it will be something else.
NB: But the law of unintended consequences is capricious. If the Speaker has the power to bring down a fragile Tory Government, they will have a real incentive to bring the Speaker down first. And that means bringing back, before the end of this Parliament, the proposal to re-elect the Speaker by secret ballot (something he and Harriet Harman were careful to avoid).