The public thinks MPs are on another planet – so why stop John Bercow trying to bring them back to earth?

He is the first Speaker in the modern era to be a substantial reformer, and some of the traditionalists are uneasy


After the sweaty, raucous, nerve-shredding drama of recent elections, the focus switches to parliament. Tomorrow, the Queen’s Speech will be unveiled with the familiar mix of ritual and noisy debate.

Disillusioned voters will almost certainly have their prejudices confirmed. The TV images can easily suggest a group of detached politicians living in a cocooned world of grand buildings and gilded corridors surrounded by bewigged officials. The images are accurate of course, but the perception is wrong. There is no Westminster bubble, no distant place where hundreds of pampered MPs cut themselves off from the rest of the world. If anything, the opposite is the case. They are so in touch that they feel obliged to pretend to agree that the cynicism is justified. Quite a lot of them attack the idea of the Westminster bubble in the hope that voters conclude that they at least are not trapped by it.

There is an alternative route. Parliament needs to demonstrate it is not on another planet. In this context a small but significant row has erupted between the Speaker, John Bercow, and the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley.

A short time ago the Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir Robert Rogers, retired early. The Clerk has two important roles, as chief executive to the Commons and as an expert in parliamentary procedure. Stories have surfaced that Sir Robert had fallen out with Bercow. The stories were true but one-sided in suggesting that Bercow’s rudeness was the only possible explanation. The causes of their differences were more complex.

Bercow might be a contentious Speaker but his only detectable bias is to be pro-parliament and pro-politics. He is the first Speaker in the modern era to be a substantial reformer, and some of the traditionalists are uneasy. One important innovation is to allow many more so-called urgent questions. It is with little notice that Bercow can summon ministers to answer MPs’ questions on the big issues of the moment. Before he became Speaker, Parliament looked as if it was on another planet because it often was. Big issues came up, and there was no discussion of them in the Commons.

Quite often, the now-former Clerk advised Bercow not to grant the urgent questions, sometimes deploying cricketing metaphors – that the wicket was not right for play to go ahead. Nearly always, Bercow concluded there was nothing wrong with the wicket, one example of their differing approaches.

The former Clerk wrote a beautiful resignation letter that Bercow read out to MPs, who responded by applauding. The letter elegantly and powerfully stated the case for Parliament. But Bercow was right to press ahead with making Parliament seem as close as possible to the real world, and in his wariness the former Clerk, something of a hero to Bercow’s enemies, was wrong.

Bercow’s clash with Lansley has arisen over how to choose Sir Robert’s successor. Bercow wants the chance to appoint a dynamic outsider to focus more on the chief executive role. Lansley wants the new clerk to be like the last one, above all a bewigged expert on parliamentary procedure. Bercow is less bothered by the wig, aware that there is already a big team of clerks. He has the support of the shadow leader of the House, Angela Eagle, but he has had several very tense exchanges with Lansley.

Bercow wanted a head-hunter to find suitable external candidates for the role. Lansley was opposed to this. Lansley wanted the advertisement to highlight the need for “detailed knowledge” of parliamentary procedure. Bercow strongly disagreed. After several discussions, Bercow prevailed over the use of a head-hunter and they reached a compromise over the wording of the advertisement. But relations remain very tense, a situation that might only be resolved if Lansley leaves parliament to be the UK’s next commissioner in Brussels.

Again stories emerge implying that Bercow is to blame for the row. Yet seeking a dynamic outsider with some experience of management does not seem too revolutionary an act.

This is a small example of how difficult it is to bring about change within parliament. One of the current clichés is that more ordinary people should become MPs. But when Bercow sought to introduce a nursery so that those with young children could work in the building more easily, there were endless obstacles.

Currently some in the Lords resist Bercow’s proposed construction of an Education Centre, aimed at bringing parliament and its history a little more to life. Bercow also plays a part in making parliament more of a model for the future. He insists that everyone who works on the parliamentary estate must be paid the London living wage and that staff on zero-hours contracts must be offered minimum-hours contracts instead.

Parliament is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests. But traditionalists do not help their cause by opposing change or briefing against a Speaker who, within the constraints of impartial office, seeks to address the great big kicking given to the entire political establishment last month.

Miliband doesn’t really ignore us, but perhaps he should

Ed Miliband makes waves by revealing that he does not read British newspapers or read Twitter very often. I would be very surprised if his proclaimed abstinence is entirely true. Leaders like to affect an indifference to media opinion, probably to suggest lofty invincibility when in reality they are dangerously addicted to what is written and broadcast about them.

Indeed so dangerous is the addiction, with consequences of neurotic paralysis, that I am sure it would be very healthy if leaders did not read the endless eruption of verdicts on their performance and the accompanying advice about what they should do next.

One adviser of Gordon Brown tried to comfort him after the then Prime Minister had read another set of painfully personal attacks in every national newspaper, saying: “Gordon, you are the only person in the country who reads all the papers.” Not surprisingly this partially accurate observation was of limited comfort.

Tony Blair once told me he thought the British media was like sharing a flat with a demented tenant. He did not know whether to sock it over the head or pour it another drink.

David Cameron started out being more indifferent than most leaders, but soon became worried by newspaper criticism, and thrilled by praise.

Whatever leaders or their advisers proclaim, the British media is the noisy chorus that is impossible to ignore even though political leaders would think more clearly and lead more boldly if they blocked their ears.

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