The Speaker of the House of Commons is an elected Member of Parliament but is meant to remain politically neutral so that he can adequately discharge his or her constitutional duties.
The current Speaker, John Bercow, has been consistently criticised for failing to adhere to this duty of neutrality with some notable examples.
For example, in February 2017 Bercow gave in speech from the chair in which he made clear that he was opposed to the granting of a State Visit to US President, Donald Trump. As Speaker of the House of Commons Bercow is one of three key holders to Westminster Hall, holding an effective veto over its use for speeches by foreign dignitaries. From the chair, he controversially made clear that he would be opposed to any such speech by President Trump because of his “migrant ban” saying ” as far as this place is concerned, I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and sexism and our support for equality before the law an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons”.
The Speaker has also been criticised for impartiality over Brexit. For example, on the 18th March 2019 he prevented a third vote taking place on Theresa May’s deal. In doing so he was quoting precedent from the 18th century which suggests that a vote cannot take place on the same issue twice:
However, commentators noted that the Speaker had allowed multiple votes on other issues before. He was heavily critcised with one Conservative MP, Tim Loughton, calling it ” most serious constitutional crisis I have seen in my 22 years in this house” .
Bercow’s perceived bias also led to a tense confrontation with a Conservative Backbencher Adam Holloway who criticised a sticker that he alleged was in the Speaker’s personal car.
At important mechanism for the ensuring the impartiality of the Speaker is the existence of the Denison Convention. This is named after John Denison, Speaker between 1857 and 1872. This is the convention that if there is a tie in the House of Commons the Speakers always votes to:
- Ensure the Status Quo
- Continue Debate
This is important because it means a Speaker would vote differently depending on when the tie in question happened. For example, if there was a tie at Second Reading the Speaker would vote in favour of the motion. This is because by ensuring that it went to Committee, Report Stage and Third Reading, the Speaker would be ensuring that the issue was guaranteed further debate. However, if a tie emerged at Third Reading the Speaker might well cast his vote differently on the very same issue – because he would vote for the status quo.
It is extremely rare for the Denison Convention to have to be deployed. One reason for this is the power that the government usually has over the parliamentary process. As a result of the First Past The Post System the Government usually has a large majority and can control the Parliamentary agenda. This situation was coined the ‘Elective Dictatorship’ by Lord Hailsham. This means the government are very rarely defeated and, if they are likely to be so, they will withdraw their plans. An example of this is when Theresa May decided to withdraw a meaningful vote on her deal in December 2018 as it was clear that she would lose.
However, in the event of a hung parliament, this is less the case. This is obviously no more clear than over Brexit that has seen a number of very close divisions. However, the closest division occurred on 3rd April 2019 when a vote on whether to hold more indicative cores resulted in a tie of 310 to 310. The Speaker casted his vote against more indicative votes (as this is an unusual process).
He stated “in accordance with precedent and the and principle that important decisions should not be taken expect by a majority, I cast my vote with the noes”.
This was the first time the that the Denison Convention had come into use since 1993 when it was used to decide a vote on the Maastricht Treaty by 317 to 317. However, it later transpired that there had been a miscount and the vote was amended.
With no clear sign that Brexit divisions are diminishing, it is by no means certain that the Denison Convention will be relied upon again. At least in its exercise, no-one was questioning the action of the Speaker.