MPs are continuing to chip away at John Bercow as best they can. At questions following the Business Statement in the Commons this morning, Simon Burns repeated his question about that ‘floating’ letter that he mentioned after Prime Minister’s Questions and which the Prime Minister has been joking about to Tory MPs.
Hague pointed out that ‘things do not float around in Number 10. That is not the way Number 10 operates, I’m very pleased to say. The Prime Minister has received a letter this week from you, Mr Speaker, I’m sure you don’t mind me saying, in which you ask that the appointment of Carol Mills is delayed further until a clear way forward on this issue has been agreed. And so that is the current status of the letter rather than any… floating.’
But the issue remained floating about the Chamber, and sure enough, at the end of the session, up popped Michael Fabricant and Simon Burns to press further questions. Fabricant wanted to get the Speaker’s response to his letter, published on Coffee House yesterday, in which he suggested the Speaker may have inadvertently misled the House. Bercow said:
‘Let me reiterate to him that I believe him to be incorrect. The panel, of which I was chair, was briefed about all of the applicants for the post of Clerk and Chief Executive and I think he’s quite wrong to say that there was prevention of Saxton Bampfylde giving information to the panel, the panel made a judgement on the material with which it was provided, including a piece of information provided to it on the occasion of the second set of interviews. The panel made its own judgement on the basis of that information and did not see any need for a meeting as I think the honourable gentleman has in mind. There is no question of prevention, the panel made its own judgement and that was perfectly proper. And I would also reiterate to the honourable gentleman, who was courteous enough to also raise another point with me yesterday, what I said in response to him then, namely that the individual whose name he bandies around in the House, that of Carol Mills, was indeed on the original list of proposed interviewees. The honourable gentleman put it to me that she had not been, I told him that she had been, and I do have one slight advantage over the honourable gentleman in this matter and that is I was there and I do know and he wasn’t, and he doesn’t.’
Bercow was much more calm and reasonable today, and was helped by a very clear point of order from Julian Lewis, who complained about this barrage of ‘bogus’ points of order. There is certainly a groundswell of frustration from some colleagues that some MPs are pursuing this campaign quite so fervently. But Fabricant says he has the support not just of colleagues but of Parliamentary staff. He tells Coffee House:
‘I have had so many messages of support from junior employees of the House saying go for it, the Speaker is a c***. I don’t use language like that, but I do think he can be a bit of a knob. He doesn’t inspire loyalty at any level it seems.’
There is of course a danger of this appearing a campaign against Bercow himself, rater than his behaviour over the Clerk appointment. The organisers of the original revolt were very careful to avoid such an impression.
Some of those campaigning against the Clerk appointment do think the Speaker is damaged, but that he will survive until the General Election, when they predict he will find that the House does not unanimously reappoint him on his return, thereby sparking a division. MPs do not normally vote on reappointing the speaker, so any division would be a serious blow to the Speaker’s authority.
Chances are now that unless further information emerges about the Speaker’s involvement in Carol Mills’ recruitment, then the row will quieten down for a little bit, until the backbench debate on governance of the House.