Three urgent questions agreed on final day of parliament before the election could delay MPs' vote as Tories and Lib Dems reject claims of 'grubby' plot
By Frances Perraudin , Nicholas Watt and agency
Guardian Online – 26 March 2015
A vote which could make it easier for Conservative MPs to unseat John Bercow as Commons Speaker has been delayed by hours after three urgent questions were agreed. Bercow approved the three additions to Thursday morning's business – including one on the last-minute change to the day's schedule which has sparked a major row at Westminster. Each urgent question takes anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on how many MPs wish to ask follow-up questions and how long the occupant of the Speaker's chair wants business to continue.
In a move described by the Shadow Leader of the Commons, Angela Eagle, as a "grubby" plot, the Leader of the Commons, William Hague, was set to use his last day as an MP after 26 years at Westminster to allow MPs to vote on whether a secret ballot should be held on Bercow's future after the election in May.
Conservative MP Julian Lewis has written to MPs urging them to vote against a change to parliamentary procedures to make it easier for Tory opponents of Bercow to unseat him after the election. The Tories, who agreed with the Liberal Democrats to hold the vote in government time on Thursday (the final day of parliament before the election), came under fire for underhand tactics after slipping out the motion on Wednesday evening. Many Labour MPs had by then returned to their constituencies to campaign.
"One need not be a particular admirer of the Speaker to realise that this is no way for decent people to behave,"
wrote Lewis, who is Conservative MP for New Forest East in Hampshire.
"I trust that members of all parties will not allow themselves to be manipulated in this unworthy fashion, and will make the effort to attend and vote appropriately tomorrow, by rejecting the proposal to re-elect the Speaker secretly rather than openly."
Speaking to the BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Thursday, Lewis described the move as
"the politics of the stab in the back",
saying it was behaviour more suited to
"the antics of student union politics than the Chamber of the House of Commons".
Tory sources said Hague was simply giving MPs the chance to vote on a recommendation by the Commons Procedure Committee. Members of the Committee said MPs should be allowed to decide on whether the election of the Speaker, which takes place at the start of every parliament, should be held by secret ballot. Bercow's opponents have long campaigned for the right to turn the traditional post-election vote into a secret ballot. The Speaker's critics believe that only a handful of MPs would be prepared to register their opposition to Bercow under the current system, in which the Father of the House takes the chair in the first parliamentary sitting after a general election. An incumbent Speaker would normally expect to be re-elected on the nod. A secret ballot would allow MPs to vote against the Speaker without fear of repercussions if he won.
In his letter, Lewis argues that the Commons Procedure Committee has investigated elections for positions in the House and recommended that no change be made. The Committee also recommended that if the issue were to be debated by MPs it should be given a prominent slot and "not be tucked away on a Thursday". Many Conservative MPs were due to attend a strategy meeting in Portcullis House at the same time that the issue was to be debated in the chamber. Lewis writes:
"The division bell will then ring and Colleagues will stream over to the division lobbies without any awareness of the issues involved in this so-called 'free vote'. Instead, they will be likely to support whatever it is the leader of the house has tabled."
"Whatever the merits of the case, this is an absolute ambush. It's sneaking something on to the agenda at the eleventh hour of the last day, when huge numbers of MPs are away and this is the sort of behaviour that is more suited to the antics student union politics than the chamber of the House of Commons."
Tory and Lib Dem sources rejected Labour claims they had acted in an underhand way. They said they were following the convention of allowing MPs to vote on the recommendations of the Procedure Committee. But Nick Clegg, who was due to spend the day in his Sheffield Hallam constituency after his weekly LBC phone-in, was not expected to be present for the vote. Michael Gove, the Tory chief whip who is often rebuked by the Speaker, made careful preparations to ensure there was a strong turnout of Tory MPs for the vote. In common with all votes on parliamentary business, MPs are given a free vote, which allows them to vote as they like. But Gove imposed a three-line whip to compel Tory MPs to attend a briefing at 10.30am by Lynton Crosby, the Tory campaign director. This meant that large numbers of Tory MPs were due to be at Westminster for the vote - set for around 11.30am ...
[NOTE: The plot failed when the Motion was defeated by 202 to 228. Julian was one of 23 Conservatives who voted against it, as did 10 Liberal Democrat MPs]