June 22, 2009

Speaker Election

John Bercow’s speech to MPs putting his case for the Speakership.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Williams.

All hon. Members are, by definition, experienced campaigners. Some campaigns get off to a good start; others suffer setbacks. One of my first approaches was to a particularly distinguished colleague whom I would not dream of identifying. I asked if he would back me today. “Certainly not, Bercow. You are not just too young; you are far too young‚Äîgiven that, in my judgment, the Speaker ought to be virtually senile. If you were elected, it would be disastrous for you, disastrous for the House, and disastrous for the country,” and with that he slammed down the phone.

Just in case that is a widely held view, I shall merely observe, Mr. Williams, that Speakers elected younger than me at 46 were actually quite common in times gone by. In the 18th century, Speaker Grenville was elected at 29 and Speaker Addington at 32. Indeed, both went on to become Prime Minister—not a likely career move in my case. By contrast, Speaker Onslow was elected at 36 in 1728 and he stayed in situ for more than 30 years—not a danger in my case, given my commitment to serving no longer than nine years in total. Even further back, Sir Thomas More was virtually my age when he became Speaker, though frankly his rather sticky end does not fill me with encouragement. But then again he is the only Member of this House ever to have been canonised. My own preference is, however, for success in this world rather than in the next.

I do not want to be someone; I want to do something. Working with colleagues, I want to implement an agenda for reform, for renewal, for revitalisation, and for the reassertion of the core values of this great institution in the context of the 21st century. That this election is being held at this moment testifies to the turmoil that is engulfing this place and to the crisis of confidence in parliamentarians themselves. Unless and until we can move the debate on from sleaze and second homes to the future of this House, we shall remain in deep trouble. A legislature cannot be effective while suffering from public scorn. A strong command of “Erskine May” is far from adequate for the tasks, although I am confident that four years’ service on the Speaker’ Panel of Chairmen has equipped me to cope with our over-mysterious procedures.

There are three core reasons for offering myself today as Speaker, and I am pleased to be supported in this by parliamentary colleagues from no fewer than six political parties—Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish nationalists, Welsh nationalists and the Social Democratic and Labour party, as well as enjoying support from independents of both right and left.

First, I would implement radical reforms to the system of allowances, but I would do so with respect and reverence for Parliament itself. This House is neither corrupt nor crooked, but what was meant to be a straightforward system of compensation for Members has become immensely complicated, mired in secrecy and short on accountability. Clearly, Sir Christopher Kelly’ recommendations must be accepted unless they are manifestly inappropriate, which frankly I do not expect to be the case. The next Speaker must ensure that hon. Members and taxpayers alike are not treated unfairly. This is a difficult balance to strike, but it is one that I can both accomplish and communicate.

Secondly, the case for strengthening Back Benchers, to revive Parliament as a whole, is incontrovertible. The true story of the past 30 to 50 years is not one, frankly, of petty claims on the one hand and extravagant claims on the other, but rather of the relentless erosion of this Chamber’ former strength. The Prime Minister recently asserted his desire to restore authority to Parliament, and, if elected, I would seek to hold him and any successor to that pledge. This House must seize back control of its own core functions by making a number of changes. For instance, there must be a business committee which it really runs; urgent questions must be more readily granted; scrutiny of budgets and legislation, both domestic and European, must be enhanced; and, once and for all, Ministers must be obliged to make key policy statements here. The Speaker should always be neutral within this Chamber, but he or she should not be neutral about this Chamber. If elected, I would be a tireless advocate for our political relevance.

Finally, I turn to the world beyond Westminster. A reforming Speaker needs to become both an advocate and an ambassador for Parliament. He must reconnect it with the society that it seeks to represent. I would be comfortable to be both a Speaker and a listener. I make no apology for the views that I have expressed, the causes that I have championed, and the votes that I have cast over the years. Some may have been incompatible with others—over a period—as many colleagues have been quick to point out, but even youngish men can acquire wisdom as time goes by. In any case, that is all irrelevant to the role of the Speaker, whose own political preferences must be permanently cast aside.

Throughout my 12 years in the House, I have always been passionate about Parliament. I believe that we can rebuild trust and restore our reputation, but only if we make a clean break with the past, and demonstrate once again that it is an honour without equal to sit in this House. I am that “clean break” candidate. I can help this House to meet the challenges ahead‚Äîto meet the challenge of change. We need change, we need change permanently and we need change now, but I can help to deliver it with you only if you give me the opportunity. I know that that it is a tall order and I am only a little chap, but I believe that I can rise to the occasion.

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