John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has battled valiantly to bring that tradition-bound institution up to date. One of his innovations was to advertise the job of Clerk of the House of Commons, after the resignation of the incumbent, Sir Robert Rogers.
The old procedure for filling Parliament’s most senior staff post was that the retiring clerk handed the Speaker a list of names, and the Speaker made the pick. This time, for the first time, outsiders competed for the position in front of an interviewing panel.
The biggest problem worrying the panel was that the Parliament building, a World Heritage site, is in danger of becoming a ruin. They decided the best person to supervise the vast programme of work required was Carol Mills, who runs the building that houses Australia’s parliament. She would be the first female Clerk of the Commons.
What Ms Mills lacks is knowledge of Parliament’s arcane procedures, as set out in a massive tome called Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice. She is not even well versed in Australian parliamentary procedure, having been an administrator rather than a legal adviser.
When a procedural crisis blows up that needs an instant ruling from the Speaker, he is not going to be able to turn to Ms Mills for advice. This problem is alarming MPs from right across the spectrum, and not just from the usual suspects. Potentially, this could put Mr Bercow in danger of being sacked, as his predecessor was in 2009.
Mr Bercow has been a brave and energetic Speaker. Some of his reforms have been effective. The obvious solution in this case is to split the clerk’s job in two: one to run the building, one to be the legal adviser. That may be next on his agenda. Unfortunately, the support he needs to carry any reform is evaporating. Appointing Ms Mills may be an innovation too far.