Well – when I arrived in Parliament in ’05 – Michael Martin was in the Chair. As I knew nothing about business in the House – and assumed that the Speaker knew everything – I just thought that was the way it had been done from time immemorial – and thus would it be ever – biased to calling those MPs from Scotland and men! Well – that is how it seemed to me.
Anyway – when John Bercow was elected (and I supported his bid after our own candidate Alan Beith was eliminated) I was delighted by his ability to manage business. Oh – what a difference. He is bright and witty and doesn’t let Ministers drone on – or questions bumble along never getting to the ask. He gets through more business. More people get opportunities to speak. And he understands the more complex demands that sometimes rear their heads.
My colleague, former MP David Howarth (stepped down at election – completely brilliant, in love with constitutions, standing orders and the minutiae that passes me by – but by which means confounds the processes of the House of Commons) was always using a standing order not used for decades to force a vote, or get an amendment taken or other dastardly confusions. Bercow actually understands the stuff.
Of course – I would prefer the chamber of the House of Commons to be horse shoe in shape, use language and form of language commonly understood by everyone, using names as well as constituencies (to humanise) and many other modernisations. However, for now, we simply have ‘new politics’ in the form of our fledgling coalition – but one day – I hope for greater change – where games with standing orders are not required to try and get business properly addressed and scrutinised in the elected chamber.
Today the questions is – will there be a revolt (by some Conservatives) against Bercow continuing as Speaker and a challenge – or will he prevail? I hope he prevails.
I had an appointment to meet Mr Speaker today – John Bercow. I had requested this meeting as I wanted to suggest to him (gently) that Parliament still probably had a bit of a way to go to really engage with people using technology to make it more accessible.
This is about opening it all up. Things have improved in the website now works better. But most of the best internet developments have come from outside the official Parliamentary structures, e.g. They Work for You and Write to Them both are more popular and have a wider range of functions than the official locations for similar information. These are sites where people can go to find out just what their own MP is doing. You can find what questions your MP has asked, what they have said in any debate and so on.
There is a culture issue here and that holds things back a lot. For example – uploading clips of MPs speaking onto YouTube. It’s taken months to review, and the arguments are over points the rest of the world has largely moved on from years ago like there might be an advert on the page!
Also – the way information about progress of legislation through Parliament is made available makes it very hard for others to then make use of the data. It’s as if the Met Office insisted people come to its website to find the weather forecast and didn’t like people taking its data and reproducing and reusing it elsewhere. Hence the ‘Free Our Bills’ campaign.
So – my visit to Mr Speaker was to suggest that he set up an Advisory Board to help move this agenda forward. It is crucial that it is non-partisan (this is about bringing parliament to life), and includes external experts as well as officers and possibly MPs.
There are a number of simple, significant steps a Speaker can take but the Speaker is very busy and to actually get stuff to happen needs support to make it happen.
Which is why I have suggested to him this Advisory Board. Mr Speaker seemed relatively enthusiastic – and is going to think how to best progress this. I didn’t go into any suggestions or details of things that I think should or could happen – that is for the group.
I think what Mr Speaker will want to do is to sound out the other Parties and officers etc – and then he suggested that we all get together for a brainstorm to see where this could go and how it could happen.
So – I was really pleased that he was open to the idea – and we will see what happens next.
Well – having fulsomely praised Speaker Bercow for his brave new world action in calling me from the front bench to ask a question during one of Gordon Brown’s statements – I may now have to take it back!
In the chamber yesterday – I saw Speaker Bercow furiously mouthing to a Conservative on the front bench. Said Tory Member leapt to his feet, ran to the back row – and was duly called by Speaker Bercow.
So have I leapt to praise him too soon? Was he gently chided by the establishment post my post? Was my being called from the front bench mere accident or mistake from a new and inexperienced Speaker?
I bloody well hope not!
When I was on the front bench listening to the Prime Minister’s statement and wanting to get called to ask my ‘helicopter’ question – I thought I would carry out a little experiment to see if Speaker Bercow was going to get rid of silly rules.
Under Speaker Martin – and probably legions before him – LibDem frontbenchers who want to get called to ask a question have to go and sit in the second row – as until now we have only been allowed one speaker from the front bench – and that is obviously the opposite number to the Government minister.
Now – I am the same person – whether I am on the front bench or the row behind – so it has always struck me as a stupid rule – and stupid rules is what I am looking to Speaker Bercow to get rid of.
So – I decided to test him out by standing to get called whilst still on the front bench – and not moving to the row behind.
Nearing the end of the statement period, and the last person Speaker Bercow called before he changed over to the Deputy Speaker – was – yes me!
This may seem one small step for me – but this was huge in terms of political mankind. Well done Speaker Bercow – moderniser and man of your word!
Well – it was such an exciting day yesterday. It’s hard to explain – but the potential for change was thick in the air.
Just before the announcement of the result – as John Bercow was standing talking to me – I did suggest that it would be symbolic if he refused the pantomime tradition of having to be ‘dragged’ to the Speaker’s Chair. John said that the really important stuff was management of business, fairness etc – but I said I thought symbolism was quite important too, and if the very first thing he had done would have been to depart from tradition – that would have sent a signal.
I bet he would have done it too – if I hadn’t suggested it literally a minute before the announcement – as he seems to me to be serious about change. I look forward to what comes next!
Cometh the hour …. we shall see. Even in my short time in Parliament I have seen people desperate for one role or another – and when they have got it, they have found their dreams turned to dust because they couldn’t deliver. Ming Campbell found leadership was not the same as revered Foreign Affairs spokesperson. Gordon Brown – brooder for a decade – must wonder why and how it could all go so wrong.
So – hello Speaker Bercow. I wish you well – and like all jobs at this level – it’s what you make of it! Good luck.
Surgery ’til lunchtime and then – after a bit of paperwork – off to Norwich for Any Questions. I catch the 4pm train from Liverpool Street with newspapers, briefings and blank paper and pens and spend the journey trying to work out what the questions might be.
When I get up to get off, I discover my co-panellist, Shami Chakrabarti from Liberty, is in the seat just in front. A car is there to meet us and take us to the restaurant – where Jonathan Dimbleby and John Bercow (Tory) are already seated for dinner. He now bears the ‘moderate’ tag in the Tory party and is a keen Ken Clarke supporter. David Miliband (Labour, minister) is not yet there. About three quarters of an hour into the dinner – Miliband arrives with assistant in tow. We are all strictly told not to bring assistants to the dinner – but Ministers and power and status you know. The atmosphere changes immediately. There is something quite chilling about Labour automatons – natural conversation diminishes and careful phrasing and tones take over. Strangely enough, in the anteroom when we arrive at the venue for the show, the coldness disappears just briefly and the human being can be glimpsed – completely charming.
Anyway – there is a warm up question on Pinter (not broadcast, but done to get us all into the swing of things) and then we are on. First up is the judgement on the Zimbabwe asylum seeker. Although he lied in his application, the courts have found the Government wanting and in neglect of their duty as they returned people to places without worrying enough about the human rights situation in the place they’re returning them to. Shami, John and I all welcome the decision – and Milliband mutters about a rethink. Jonathan Dimbleby asks me if I am encouraged by the Minister’s concession to ‘rethink’ and I say I am always encouraged when the Government says it will rethink. Of course – later I thought of a much better retort, as one does.
Drugs and Cameron! My take was that David Cameron should have just admitted whatever he had done at college and left it there. The BBC license fee (not surprisingly) was on the menu and we all paid tribute to the hand that fed us and then went onto the real heart of the matter on civil liberties. I am not going to bang on through the whole program (because you can listen to it on the BBC’s website for the next week – and because readers of this blog will know my views well by now!).
The show always finishes with a quirky question. On the train up and looking at the papers I thought it might be who would the panel choose to play the new James Bond. I carefully hone by answer (settling on Jonathan Ross in the end) but sadly – this isn’t the question that comes up!