It was extraordinary day in the Commons. Treachery, chicanery, deep emotional upset and betrayal and ultimately the triumph of virtue.
Never before had a party attempted to win a vote on a vital matter by a grubby trick. No Parliament in modern times had ended in such ignominy for the Government.
Many of the truly honourable Tories and LibDems MP voted with Labour so that the Tory attempt to bully by majority did not work. Early on I told the Leader of the House to withdraw his motion or face humiliation in the lobbies. He should have taken my advice.
Before the debate started I raised this point of order with the Speaker. His emphatic response set the tone of defiance of the coming debate.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There are pressing reasons why this point of order has to be taken now; it is one I raise with great reluctance. I overheard, as did several others, an hon. Member saying that he had been instructed by a Deputy Speaker on speaking in the later procedure debate, including on what kind of speech to make. May we ask that whoever is due to chair that debate is asked whether there is any truth in the claim made by the hon. Member, in order to ensure that the impartiality of the Chair is preserved?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I am not aware of those matters beyond what he has just said. Suffice it to say that I am in the Chair, and I am intending to remain in the Chair [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—today and, I hope, subsequently. I hope the hon. Gentleman, whom I greatly esteem, will not doubt my competence or fairness in chairing such proceedings of the House as take place today. I am not going anywhere.
There was an urgent question in which I asked William Hague how he had been persuaded to end his honourable career shamefully.
It will be said of the present Leader of the House that nothing demeaned him as much as the manner of his leaving, with a mean, spiteful kick at the best reforming Speaker we have had for 30 years. The task of this Parliament after the nightmare of the expenses scandal was to restore the public’s faith, but we leave with a House that is unreformed. It is still possible to buy a peerage and to buy access to Ministers, and the revolving door is still spinning, making it possible for former Ministers to prostitute their insider knowledge for the best job. Is not the Leader of the House ashamed of himself?
The hon. Gentleman goes a little wide of the question. The obvious retort is that it is still possible to buy a party, which is what trade unions do with the Labour party. That is what really needs reform in our political system.
Later I, and many others, spoke in the debate.
I believe that the Leader of the House has a choice in front him: withdrawal of this motion or humiliation in the Division Lobbies. It is clear from all those hon. Members who have spoken from all corners of the House that what is happening is entirely unacceptable to us.
When hon. Members left in 2010, we did so at the worst time for Parliament. We were being pilloried in the press—sometimes fairly, sometimes grossly unfairly, and I wrote a book about an hon. Member who I believe died prematurely because he was unfairly accused in the expenses scandal. This was the then hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire, David Taylor. Much of what happened then—the great screaming nightmare of the expenses scandal—was unjustified, but sadly a lot of it was justified and our reputation was in the gutter. Our main task in this Parliament was to restore confidence in this House and in democracy. The person who has done most to achieve that is Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker has stood up to the Government in a better way than any of the previous Speakers over the last 30 years. To the best of my knowledge, all were bullied at some time by the Government. Mr Speaker never has been. He has liberated Back Benchers and given us the time to name our debates at peak time when maximum attendance by Members is evident and the attention of the country is focused on us. He is the great success of this Parliament.
If we are looking to reform our Parliament—we remain greatly unreformed—there are at least a dozen other issues to take into account. If some Members have this latter-day devotion to democracy, why can we not do something about the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments when Members retire? This is a shameful institution—not the rottweiler it should be in controlling Members and stopping them using their insider knowledge to sell to the highest bidder. It should be stopping the corruption of Members in office, Ministers, civil servants, generals and so forth; it should prevent them from being tempted in their deliberations as they look for retirement jobs. We have done nothing about the scandal of the buying of peerages, and nothing about the buying of access to Ministers. All those scandals should have been addressed, but we have addressed none of them.
I believe that the Government will stand demeaned and shamed by this final act. They will be exposed as the nasty party, devoted not to the honour of the House—which has served us well down the centuries—but to spite and malice.
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate this afternoon, Mr Speaker. I am not ashamed to say that I admire you. I am a friend of yours. I have not yet seen your kitchen, but I hope to one day. You have done an enormous amount for this House and you have done an enormous amount to empower this Chamber.
The report should not be about you, Mr Speaker, and it is becoming about you. I fear that the Government have wanted it to become about you. It should be about the position of Speaker. On 6 February 2013, my Committee decided to bring forward this report. We were going to recommend a motion that the status quo be retained. This was an amendable motion, so those colleagues who disagreed could have amended the motion and a vote could have taken place. On 7 February, I wrote a letter to the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), notifying him of this matter and asking that our debates be taken in prime time, so the whole House could come to an informed decision.
At about that time, circumstances meant that the Government felt unable to bring forward the report. We agreed with the Government’s view on the matter. On 28 January 2015, we met the Leader of the House and had further discussions about various reports, including on the election of the Speaker. I sent a letter on 3 February confirming the Committee’s firm and unanimous view—the Committee is made up of all sorts of people from all sorts of parties—that any vote should take place in prime time so that the House could come to an informed decision.
I do say to the Government that this is not, I think, how they expected today to play out. The Government were hoping that the party would be kept here under a three-line Whip for a party meeting and that others would have gone home. This does not reflect well on the Government.
May I just say that how one treats people in this place is important? This week, I went to the leaving drinks for the Leader of the House. I spent 20 minutes saying goodbye to his special adviser yesterday. I went into his private office and was passed by the Deputy Leader of the House yesterday. All of them would have been aware of what they were proposing to do. I also had anumber of friendly chats with our Chief Whip yesterday, yet I found out at 6.30 pm last night that the Leader of the House was bringing forward my report.
I have been played as a fool. When I go home tonight, I will look in the mirror and see an honourable fool looking back at me. I would much rather be an honourable fool, in this and any other matter, than a clever man. [Applause.]
The Government lost the vote in scenes of heartfelt triumph from the good people of all parties. Those who sought to humiliate the Speaker were themselves humiliated.