Simon Carr: 'Storm in a teacup' lands whips and the Speaker in hot water

The Speaker did not appear to be surprised by Labour's ambush on the Coalition
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The Independent Online

"It was like getting a kicking from an old woman in carpet slippers," the Liberal Democrat chief whip said. "It didn't hurt but you don't want it to happen." Alistair Carmichael was reflecting on the vote that the Coalition lost by such a large margin last week.

It passed as teacup turbulence by commentators but there are three areas Commons watchers should keep an eye out for. The lost vote may affect the career of the Government Chief Whip, the establishment of a House Business Committee, and the re-election of the Speaker. Quite a cup of tea.

By a peculiarity of parliamentary life, MPs voted by a majority of 134 that they hadn't "considered the economy", though they'd just been considering it for five hours.

"It was an old-fashioned ambush," one of Labour's veteran ex-whips said. "It may not look like much from the outside but the Governments whips office will be feeling the sting of it."

On the night, Labour troops had hidden themselves around Westminster. Security was so tight that only those knew who needed to know. It was a "neutrally framed motion", a "take-note" motion. They have been voted on only a handful of times since the Norway debate in 1940. As the hour approached, Labour whip Alan Campbell moved a closure motion. The Speaker, John Bercow, reacted without surprise. Coalition whips, realising the ambush, consulted the table clerk. The Speaker leant forward to hurry them along, saying something like: "What's the hold-up? It's a perfectly ordinary procedure." The vote was taken and lost – or won – by a large anti-government majority.

The implications? One: Coalition whips had no inkling of what was coming. More than 200 MPs, and Labour staff, knew. The Government intelligence service delivered so little intelligence that the Tories had a procedurally-challenged junior whip in charge. Now that the Commons is going into a stormy period, this lack of expertise is going to concern the hierarchy.

Two: Parliamentary reformers are questing after a holy grail called the House Business Committee. This body, if established, might have the power to allocate time to Bills so that the House can scrutinise them adequately. The principle behind such a committee is common cause for reformers and radicals, sceptics and europhiles, for MPs and clerks alike. It is resisted by anyone who has an interest in getting business through the House promptly (the whips, essentially, and the executive).

Three: For the Speaker. If you look at for 9.58pm on 6 December, it is very difficult to believe he didn't know what was about to happen. He betrays no surprise at the use of a very rare procedure. Any fair-minded appraisal will note him prompting the necessary responses to come to a vote, despite protests from the Government benches.

If the Speaker has colluded with Opposition whips to embarrass the Government, it's a constitutional novelty at best and an outrage at worst. He will have speakerly reasons – the mis-scheduling of business by the Government, perhaps – but to join in a Commons plot and to involve himself in party politics like this undermines his reputation for impartiality. As that is the first and foremost quality of a Speaker, it is, if true, no small matter.