With the election for the next Speaker of the House of Commons due to happen next month, six of the candidates appeared at an Institute for Government event. Here’s what they had to say.
John Bercow wasn’t there, but his influence was still heavily felt.
Six of the nine candidates vying to replace him as Speaker sought to define themselves against the man who has held the job for 10 years.
During the discussion, criticism of Mr Bercow’s tenure ranged from the subtle to the blunt, with Conservative MP Shailesh Vara labelling him “a verbal playground bully”.
“He demeans colleagues. He insults them. That cannot continue,” he said
And Labour’s Chris Bryant said he would bring an end to “long lectures from the chair”.
Mr Bercow is standing down on 31 October. MPs will elect his replacement on 4 November.
One of his current deputies, Dame Eleanor Laing, did not explicitly attack Mr Bercow’s manner but said: “You don’t need to be rude to exert discipline.” She added: “The Speaker needs to exert authority with kindness.”
While Conservative Sir Henry Bellingham praised what Mr Bercow had done for backbench MPs, he said a good Speaker should be like “a good umpire – he should not grandstand”.
He also suggested it would be a good thing if the public did not know the name of the Speaker, in contrast to the massive media and social media interest in Mr Bercow.
Candidates were also asked how they would change the culture of the House of Commons, including making its members more diverse and the building more accessible.
Labour’s Meg Hillier lamented the lack of formal advice for MPs going on maternity leave and described Parliament’s provisions for breastfeeding and expectant mothers as “barely legal”.
She also called for MPs to get training in how to manage their staff, telling the audience she had heard “horror stories” about how some employees had been treated.
And Labour’s Harriet Harman said Parliament should have modern employment practices such as bereavement leave.
“You have to be in touch with where the public is going,” she said.
Mr Bryant said he would tackle the unpredictably of the timing of votes, highlighting the difficulty it placed on MPs with caring duties.
Mr Vara told the audience that he had come to England as an immigrant at the age of four without being able to speak any English. He said he wanted to send a message to children of any background that “if that bloke Vara can make it, then I can”.
In September, Mr Bercow was criticised for allowing a controversial procedure which gave MPs control of the parliamentary agenda in order to pass a bill aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit.
Asked if they would have done the same, Mr Bryant, Ms Harman and Ms Hillier all said yes, while Sir Henry and Mr Vara said no.
Dame Eleanor – who is currently a deputy Speaker – instead heaved a sigh, at which point Ms Harman suggested it was “not fair to ask her” the question as she still worked with Mr Bercow.
Dame Eleanor said she had sympathy for “the difficult decision” Mr Bercow had to make.
Unusually for a political hustings, the B-word was hardly mentioned.
However, Mr Bryant did admit that “one of the good reasons for standing as Speaker [a politically neutral role] is that you never have to have a view on Brexit again”.
The nine candidates bidding to replace Mr Bercow as Commons Speaker are:
- Sir Henry Bellingham – Conservative MP for North West Norfolk since 1983
- Chris Bryant – former minister and shadow Commons leader; Labour MP for Rhondda since 2001
- Harriet Harman – former minister and deputy Labour leader; Labour MP since 1992, for Peckham and its successor constituency Camberwell
- Meg Hillier – chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee and former minister; Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch since 2005
- Sir Lindsay Hoyle – elected Labour MP for Chorley in 1997; elected deputy Speaker in 2010
- Dame Eleanor Laing – elected Conservative MP for Epping Forest in 1997; elected deputy Speaker in 2013
- Sir Edward Leigh – Conservative MP for Gainsborough since 1983; former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee
- Shailesh Vara – Conservative MP for North West Cambridgeshire since 2005; former Northern Ireland minister
- Dame Rosie Winterton – elected Labour MP for Doncaster Central in 1997; former Labour chief whip; elected deputy Speaker in 2017