The Speaker of the House of Commons possesses one of the most recognisable voices in Britain, let alone Parliament. But what is their role and how are they bound by something called the Denison Convention?
What is the role of Speaker of the House of Commons?
The Speaker of the House of Commons is the highest authority within the House of Commons. They have a number of roles:
Presiding Officer – The most important role of the Speaker of the House of Commons is to be the presiding officer of House of Commons. As Presiding Officer, the Speaker is responsible for ensuring the Standing Orders (rules) of the House of Commons are followed. The Speaker will also choose who speaks in debates and will take Points of Order from members. The Speaker is responsible for maintaining order in the chamber and can ask MPs to leave the chamber if they misbehave. Famously, Dennis Skinner was asked to leave the chamber for calling David Cameron ‘Dodgy Dave’:
As presiding officer, the Speaker is also responsible for selecting amendments for selected votes. This is one of the areas where the Speaker has to use their own judgement to a high degree and this can often lead to criticism of the Speaker.
Casting Vote – On very rare occasions the Speaker may be required to provide the casting vote in a division in the House of Commons. However, when doing so they follow a convention called Speaker Denison’s Rule.
Representative of the House of Commons – The Speaker is the public representative of the House of Commons. They are also responsible for speaking to the Monarch on behalf of the House of Commons.
Certification of Bills – The Speaker is responsible for certifying when a bill is or is not a ‘money bill’ and therefore whether it is subject to the financial privilege of the House of Commons. In addition, until recently the Speaker was responsible for determining whether or no a bill was subject to the different procedures for ‘English Votes for English Laws’.
How is the Speaker Chosen?
The Speaker is chosen by other MPs. The House elects a Speaker at the start of each new Parliament or following the death or resignation of the incumbent Speaker. However, by convention, a returning Speaker is not opposed following a General Election.
Candidates for Speakership must be nominated by 12 MPs, of which three must be from a different party from their own. Votes are cast for the candidates by a secret ballot and the Alternative Vote system is used to elect the new Speaker. Whilst in modern times Speakers campaign for the role and each give a speech to the rest of the Commons, tradition dictates that the Speaker does not pursue the role and is instead ‘persuaded’ to take it. Therefore, when a new Speaker is elected, tradition dictates that they are ‘dragged’ to the Chair by their fellow MPs:
How is the independence of the Speaker encouraged?
It is important that the Speaker of the House of Commons is seen to be a neutral arbiter within the House of Commons. There are a number of ways that the Commons tries to achieve this.
Firstly, when the Speaker becomes the Speaker they give up their party allegiance. This means that they effectively sit as an Independent MP in the House of Commons. Importantly, by convention, the major parties do not put up a candidate against the Speaker at the next General Election. This is to avoid putting the Speaker in a position whereby they have to compromise their neutrality by being forced to campaign in a General Election.
Secondly, the Speaker does not routinely vote in divisions in the House of Commons. This is to avoid compromising their neutrality. However, constitutionally the Speaker very occasionally must vote in the House of Commons and on these occasions a convention known as the Denison Convention is followed.
Thirdly, the Speaker is advised by a team of clerks, led by the Clerk of the House of Commons. These clerks given independent advise to the Speaker and the advise they give is not disclosed – again in order to protect the ability of the Speaker to make impartial decisions.
What is the Denison Convention and how does it dictate that the Speaker votes in the House of Commons?
The Denison Convention is named after John Denison, the Speaker of the House of Commons from 1857 to 1872. The convention dictates that if there is a tie in the House of Commons the Speaker always votes to do one of two things:
- Continue Debate – This means that if the Speaker’s vote can encourage more debate on an issue, they will vote to do this. This will depend on what the vote is about and where in the process it might come. For example, if a bill was tied at Second Reading the Speaker would vote for the bill as it could be debated further in Committee, Report and Third Reading Stage. However, if the same bill were tied at Third Reading the Speaker would vote differently.
- Keep the Status Quo – If there is no room for further debate, the Speaker will vote for the status quo. This means they will vote:
-Against the Third Reading of any bill.
-Against any Motion of No Confidence.
– Against any amendment put forward by the House of Lords.
This situation is very different from that of the Vice-President in the US Senate. In the US Senate, the Vice-President is the tie-breaker and has used that vote to advance their government’s agenda on a number of occasions. For example, in February 2017 then Vice-President Mike Pence approved Betsy De Vos as Education Secretary in a tie-breaker vote.
In the UK, it is extremely rare that the Denison Convention 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. In fact, invocations of the Denison Convention are so rare that the Speaker has only voted twice in the last 30 years:
22nd July 1992 – In a vote on the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty MPs vote 317-317. The then Speaker, Baroness Boothroyd, cast her vote with the noes.
Bizarrely, it was later fund that this vote had been miscounted and the record was later expunged!
3rd April 2019 – A vote on whether to hold more indicative votes on Brexit was tied by 310-310. The Speaker casted his vote against more indicative votes (as this is an unusual process).
The Speaker, John Bercow, “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”.
Why was John Bercow such a controversial Speaker?
John Bercow was Speaker from 2009 to 2019 and is one of the most controversial Speakers in History. There is no doubt that he was a highly reformative Speaker who oversaw a significant rebalancing of power in Parliament – with more rights being upheld for backbench MPs. However, this in itself made him a highly controversial figure.
There are a number of incidents that courted controversy with Bercow. 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”:
This was important because it appeared that the Speaker, who was meant to be a neutral figure, was giving a highly politicised opinion on a key issue.
In addition, the Speaker’s role over Brexit was highly criticised. 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 criticised with one Conservative MP, Tim Loughton, calling it ” most serious constitutional crisis I have seen in my 22 years in this house”.
In another controversial incident Bercow ruled that a Government motion that was believed to be unamendable could in fact be amended. This allowed backbenchers to take control of the agenda and force Theresa May to outline her Brexit plans much sooner than she wished to. This led to the Speaker having to take points of order for over an hour.
His decisions on Brexit led to a series of high-profile spats with Conservative MPs, most notably Conservative Backbencher Adam Holloway who criticised a sticker that he alleged was in the Speaker’s personal car:
It has been a long-held tradition that Former Speakers of the House of Commons are offered a peerage upon leaving the Speakership. However, perhaps not surprisingly, Boris Johnson did not elevate Bercow to the House of Lords.
Since then, however, an independent report found that Bercow had been a ‘serial bully’ during his time as Speaker and recommended that he should not be allowed a Commons pass. This has quashed his chances of being given a peerage and left a further stain on his reputation as Speaker.
The Speaker is the Presiding Officer of the House of Commons and is required to remain an impartial arbiter in enforcing the Standing Orders (Rules) of Parliament. Some Speakers, such as John Bercow, have been seen to be far less impartial than others. However, there are important conventions that exist to try to make sure the Speaker remain impartial. These include the convention that major parties do not put up a candidate to run against the Speaker in the General Election and the Denison Convention which dictates how the Speaker cast any tie-breaking vote in the House of Commons.
Speaker of the House of Commons – The presiding officer of the House of Commons who is responsible for order, discipline and the smooth functioning of the House of Commons.
Denison Convention – A convention that dictates how the Speaker should cast their vote in the event of a tie. It dictates the Speaker should always vote for further debate or for the status quo.