At the start of this week, current House of Commons speaker John Bercow announced his resignation as Speaker and MP to the House of Commons.
The announcement was received well by those on the opposition benches, with many Labour Party MPs describing Bercow as someone who championed Parliament and protected democracy. Many on the government benches were pleased to see the Speaker stepping down, seeing him as biased especially towards his own views on Brexit. It has also come as upset towards many anti-Brexit campaigners, who ultimately saw Bercow as the hero to end Brexit due to his passion for defending the UK’s membership to the EU. However, on Tuesday the Speaker solemnly announced his resignation stating that he ‘promised’ his wife and children that he would stand down at the next election and is set to stand down as an MP, and therefore Speaker, on 31st October if the House didn’t vote for a General Election.
The nature of his resignation has not stopped other MPs from readily putting forward their candidacy. So, who could be set to be ceremonially dragged from the benches and donned in the Speaker’s gown?
Dame Eleanor Laing
Conservative MP Eleanor Laing has served as the MP for Epping Forest since 1997. Between March 2004 and December 2005 Dame Laing served as Shadow Secretary for Women and Equality and Shadow Secretary for Scotland. In 2013 she was elected as First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, also known as the Speaker’s Office. Her election has meant that since 2013 she has been one of the deputy speakers, alongside Chairman Sir Lindsay Hoyle.
Eleanor Laing has advocated the need for a female Speaker, thus putting herself forward for the job. However, bets on her winning the position has been put at an average of 18/1 despite her incumbency and experience in comparison to other candidates. It is also possible that MPs view of her record in Parliament will encourage their vote for or against her. In the past Dame Laing has been a controversial figure on gay rights, both accepting and declining changing legislature. In 1998, she sponsored the move to decrease the homosexual age of consent to 16, however went on to vote against repealing Section 28 in 2003. In 2013 she also was a strong opponent of equal marriage stating that “social change should come about by evolution, not by diktat from the top of government”, and subsequently abstained from voting on it.
MP for Camberwell and Peckham, Harriet Harman, has been described as a House of Commons veteran, with her career as an MP spanning since 1982. She has served in several Government and Shadow Opposition roles, including during the Blair Government when she was made Secretary of State for Social Security and the first event Minister for Women. She was an important figure in reforming the Welfare State under Blair, including introducing a minimum income guarantee. Between 2007 and 2015 Harman was Deputy Leader and Chairwoman of the Labour Party before being placed as caretaker leader after Labour front-runner Ed Miliband stepped down as an MP failing his election as Prime Minister.
Harriet Harman has also described herself as being an ‘agent for change’ in an interview with the Guardian following her announcement for candidacy. She describes the outside world as changing ‘very rapidly’ and suggests that a new speaker should bring the House of Commons up to speed with the modern day, while bridging the gap between MPs and the public. Harman has long been an advocate for reforming Parliament to make it more family-friendly, including sponsoring a change to Commons hours, which eventually took place in 2005.
Ms Harman is the only candidate to have publicly outlined how she aims to improve the running of Parliament as well, which may be one of the reasons why she’s seen a front-runner in the race for Speaker. Harman plans to resurrect the ‘house business committee’ in order to set business between MPs and the government. Currently the timetable is set by ministers, forcing many on the opposition benches to push for emergency motions, that may sometimes be rejected. Her second change would be to provide a more regular system for legislation instigated by backbenchers rather than the current once-per-session ballot for private member’s bills. Ms Harman’s third and final promise is to better connect Parliament with the outside world, something that may have been long since needed in regards to recent events surrounding the Brexit debate and public outcry over the prorogation of Parliament.
With Harman’s long service to Parliament and her solid reputation as a major reformer, she is currently second favourite to win with 7/4 odds.
Labour Party MP Chris Bryant has served as MP for Rhondda since 2001. He served several roles under Gordon Brown, including Deputy Leader of the House, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and finally, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Europe and Asia. He is currently Chairman of the House Finance Committee, however in the recent years of successive Conservative Governments he has held various Shadow Cabinet positions, including Shadow Leader of the House of Commons under Jeremy Corbyn.
Bryant has long been a defender of creating a more open and fairer society, often made through controversial comments, particularly surrounding culture and the housing benefit reforms made in 2010. He has been most well known for being an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights by not only being open about his own sexuality but voting 100% in favour of same sex marriage and other legislative changes promoting equality. As a result, in 2011 he was voted as Stonewall Politician of the Year.
His advocacy for a fairer society may play favourably towards him during a secret ballot, however his controversial approach to finding an answer on certain issues could place him lower down as a favourite on Conservative benches. It is possible that his lack of experience as a key Parliamentary player in comparison to other candidates may also play a part, however he is already ahead of Dame Eleanor Laing in the odds to win.
Sir Edward Leigh
Sir Edward Leigh has served as the Conservative MP for Gainsborough since 1983. Despite never serving as a government minister he served for 9 years as the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee between 2001-2010.
Sir Edward has openly made comments about his bid to be the next Speaker saying that he commits to being ‘rigidly impartial’. He added “If elected, I would totally cease to air my personal opinions but would seek to defend the customs and privileges of the House of Commons” and that he would “submerge his personality” in order to create a better flow of business.
In the past he has never hesitated to criticise his own side by voting against party leadership on several occasions, most notably in 2003 when he rebelled against the leadership to vote against intervention in Iraq. He also openly criticised the government’s decision not to delay the roll-out of Universal Credit in 2017.
This, however, is the not the first time that Sir Leigh has been mentioned as a potential candidate for Speaker. In 2010 he was encouraged to stand for the position however declined due to parliamentary convention. He first announced his intention to stand following the retirement of the incumbent in April of this year, meaning he was the first person to announce his candidacy. Despite his determination for the role he is not a front-runner, standing behind Dame Laing in his odds to win.
Sir Henry Bellingham
Sir Henry Bellingham has been the Conservative Party MP for North West Norfolk, however, is seen to be an outsider for the role with very little experience of being a front-runner in Parliament. He has only ever held one role as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs for two years between 2010-2012.
He has been seen to be popular among Pro-Brexit MPs, which may make him popular among Conservative benches but less so with the opposition. In an interview with Sky News he said, “The speaker should be like a good referee or a really good umpire, they should never be the story.” He also played on his 30 years of experience in the house saying that he believes the role “needs someone with a lot of experience”.
Despite Sir Bellingham also suggesting that a change of approach is needed, especially after Mr Bercow’s controversial incumbency, his profile seems to put him lower down in the odds of becoming Speaker.
Sir Lindsay Harvey Hoyle
The favourite to win is current Labour MP Sir Lindsay Hoyle. Sir Hoyle has served as the MP for Chorley since 1997. He is currently Deputy Speaker and has been Chairman of Ways and Means since 2010.
He is popular on both sides of the House and with many Labour and Conservative Party voters. Sir Hoyle has also never declared his views on Brexit, while rarely being open about his views on several issues aside from clashing with then Prime Minister Tony Blair over Gibraltar and tuition fees.
His experience and ability to remain unbiased may continue to play well up until the day of the secret ballot, with odds on him to win currently at 5/6, just in front of Harriet Harman.
What next for the race to Speaker?
The role of Speaker is open to all MPs and is set to be announced on the day of Bercow’s resignation following speeches made by the candidates to the house and a secret ballot. However, it is unlikely anyone else is set to announce their candidacy with such strong figures already in the race.
With Bercow’s evidently divisive and controversial legacy, the House of Commons is more than ready for a Speaker openly liked by both sides of the house, and capable of maintaining an unbiased stance. There is no doubt many on the Conservative benches feel that some order is needed to be brought back to the house by the next speaker, especially surrounding debate on Brexit. Furthermore, there have been long been calls for improved running of the house and a better ability to serve the will of the people, which explains why Harriet Harman is so close to the top spot. With both herself and Lindsay Hoyle battling so closely for the role, reform and balance is evidently the main priority among many MPs.