The race to become the next Speaker of the Commons reaches a climax this week. The field is crowded. The campaign is spiced with malevolent calculations. The election manages to be simultaneously more and less important than it seems.
The field of candidates is slightly more varied than usual and shines inadvertent light on the wider political situation. Only a few days ago Margaret Beckett had hopes of returning to the cabinet, but instead she was dropped from her junior post of Housing Minister.
Beckett has fallen twice under Gordon Brown who sacked her as Foreign Secretary when he became Prime Minister and again in his reshuffle last week. Her fate was almost very different. Brown's close ally, Ed Balls, advised him during one of the recent crises to promote her to the cabinet partly to perform the task of Secretary of State for the Today programme, a calm voice in a storm. She was never elevated to this important post and nor was anyone else.
As a result some storms rage for longer than they need to. Fearless in the face of any interviewer and alert to the scope for slips, Beckett would have been good at putting the case for the government. Instead, with her ministerial career over, she opts for the politically neutered role of the Speaker and Brown's government relies on Peter Mandelson to be the calm, unperturbed voice from his non-elected berth in the Lords.
The candidacy of the Conservative MP, John Bercow, also tells us something about the current position of his party. He was a moderniser while David Cameron was still preaching the virtues of Section 28, the clause that banned the "promotion" of homosexuality. Travelling from the right he recently voted for Harriet Harman's Equalities bill.
If the Conservatives had modernised their policies as well as their tone Bercow would probably have looked forward to playing some role in a Cameron government. Instead he seeks an alternative route while most on the right of his party are standing firm ready to play an active part if the Conservatives win.
Some Conservative MPs brief that if Bercow were to get the job he would be kicked out after the election. In doing so they imply more widely that the charm offensive of opposition would be replaced by the hob nail boot once power had been safely secured. But even if a Conservative government proves to be more ferociously partisan compared with poor old timid New Labour I doubt if it will have cause to eject the Speaker.
The reason for this is why the contest is on one level not as important as it seems. The winner will be an impartial facilitator and no more than that. He or she has no space to go any further even if they wished to do so. No Labour Speaker would favour their party's cause and vice versa. That is why all the politicking in relation to the contest is meaningless. Labour MPs are accused of supporting Bercow because he is loathed by the Conservatives. The Conservatives plot to stop him because they want one of their own rather than an MP who they no longer regard as a Tory. They should all calm down. Speakers are not biased one way or another.
It is quite difficult to be. The Speaker ceases to be part of the familiar political battleground. All the candidates seek the post because they are happy to leave the battles to others. Switching from one mode to another is easy. Some of us do it in journalism. I have been an impartial interviewer while expressing views here. They are different forms of journalism and the switch from one to another is embarrassingly easy.
If Margaret Beckett gets the job you will never hear her defend the Labour government again. If the senior Conservative, Sir George Young, secured the post he will not be heard speaking up on behalf of his party.
Instead of scheming pointlessly MPs should ask a single question. Which of the candidates will speak up most effectively and personify change for the Commons at a point when Britain's anti-politics culture is rabid? There is a need for advocacy on behalf of the parliament rather than for any party that is represented in it. The degree to which Parliament becomes more relevant in its capacity to hold the executive to account will be decided by the party leaders, and most decisively by the leader who wins the next election.
The Speaker will have no influence over that. But the next holder of the post does have the opportunity to make the place seem less forbidding and more engaging. That is why the election is more important than usual.
The next Speaker should do away with the costumes and the rituals, make the language and the proceedings more straightforward, give media interviews when Parliament itself is the issue, put the case for politics and the Commons around the country and by personifying a modern approach put pressure on the party leaders to make their moves too. I have never understood why the Speaker should not give interviews, an elusiveness that makes the Commons seem more distant than it is. Even Bob Dylan gives the occasional interview these days. Aloofness is not an option when most public figures are available around the clock.
So the choice is not about party, but who can make the case while seeming fresh. Only Bercow has been neither a minister, nor a previous candidate for Speaker. He has wanted the job for several years, before it was certain that Cameron had no time for him. I remember getting a call from him shortly after the last election in which he asked to meet somewhere discreetly. I assumed he was thinking of defecting, but instead he told me he wanted to be Speaker. I advised strongly against, saying he liked to be a participant in debates rather than chairing them. Like most politicians he did not follow my advice and stuck to his guns.
As one of the younger reforming candidates, who wanted the job when one way or another he still had the option of other political paths, MPs should elect Bercow next Monday.
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