Jobs for the boys

It’s too soon to judge what difference John Bercow will make as Speaker of the Commons, but there have already been a couple of developments. Firstly, he’s announced that there will be elections for Deputy Speakers. I don’t know what the current system is for anointing Deputies – I assume it’s either in the gift of the Speaker, or the whips/ party leaders. At the moment the posts are held by Sir Alan Haselhurst (Con), Sir Michael Lord (Con), and Sylvia Heal (Lab) – the convention is that it’s a balanced ticket between the Government and the Opposition, and the current balance is of course a legacy from when Michael Martin, a former Labour MP, was Speaker.

Deputies are subject to the same restrictions as the Speaker – i.e. they don’t speak in debates, or vote – but there’s not the same convention that opposition parties shouldn’t stand against them at the General Election and they can return to being ‘normal’ MPs if they stop being deputies. The current word is that Sir Michael Lord will head ‘upstairs’ to the Lords, although I don’t now if this would be now, necessitating a by-election, or at the next General. I would expect Sir Alan to be re-elected should he choose to stand again, as he’s a popular figure, as is Sylvia. No suggestion yet of other names in the frame, but I’d expect a Lib Dem to come forward (who’d have to go head to head with Sir Alan, as the new Speaker is a Tory, even if most Tories regard him as having left the fold many years ago!) And we’ll be looking for another Labour name, but I’ve no idea who would be interested. Of those who ran for Speaker, Parmjit has ruled himself out, and I don’t think Margaret Beckett would be keen either.

The other noticeable development from Bercow is the granting of requests for urgent questions. We’ve had three or four in the past few weeks, since he took up post, which is more than I can remember for many months, if not years. This is good, it makes Parliament far more responsive to current events. They only last for about 20 minutes, but they’re a useful device.

Last week, for example, Evan Harris MP put in an urgent question on the News of the World phone-tapping/ Coulson affair (can anyone come up with anything better than Coulsongate?) Slightly bizarre scenario, in that the question was answered by David Hanson, the Justice Minister, on behalf of the Government, whereas obviously the people who should have been answering were sitting squirming on the Tory front bench. Tricky for Bercow, in that the rule is usually that questions should be aimed at the Government minister, and questions about Opposition words or deeds are quashed with the mantra that ‘Opposition policy is not a matter for the Minister’ but it would have been nonsensical to have dealt with this particular issue without calling into question Cameron’s judgment and whether or not Coulson should remain in post. Backbenchers got round this by, for example, asking whether it was appropriate for Coulson to have a parliamentary pass and whether he should be suspended from having one whilst an investigation is carried out.

As I’m on the subject of Cameron’s loyalty to his pals, it’s interesting to note what’s being said about the set-up of Cameron’s ‘West Wing’ should the country take leave of its senses and elect a Tory Government at the next election. Apparently they’re going to knock through No. 10 and No. 11 (metaphorically, if not literally) and Dave and George are going to have offices next to each other. The role of Chief Sec to the Treasury is going to be substantially beefed up, so that a lot of the Chancellor’s work passes to him or her. (Actually, let’s just make that him – chances of it being a woman are slim to non-existent!) So basically the Chancellor – or Obsorne, as this is designed purely for his benefit – is going to be freed up to play more of a role as a political strategist, as he does now, and leave someone else to the tedious business of running the economy. He has of course recently admitted that he spends only 40% of his time on economics and seems to think that’s rather a lot. Is this, I ask myself, because Cameron so values Osborne’s advice on political strategy, or is it because he doesn’t think he’s quite cut out to be Chancellor? And in either case, wouldn’t it simply be better not to appoint him Chancellor in the first place, and get someone in who can and wants to do the job?

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