Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Essay in Focus: A Speaker in Order?

The original article on which this is based first featured in Prospect Magazine and can be read here.
Loyal readers of TPR will now how much I dislike the work of James Macintyre, and how much I feel that Prospect Magazine's political coverage has gone down in quality since he was appointed Political Editor. As a reminder of my feelings, here is an extract from a recent short biography I posted of Macintyre before reviewing his first book, Ed:

"Truth be told, TPR's heart sank when he saw Macintyre was one of the joint authors of this book. Whilst he has had a fairly illustrious career (working at The Independent and New Statesman) much of his work has been of grave disappointment. Beyond his style, which I do not find favourable, he could easily be portrayed as part of the media arm of the Labour Party and consequently biased to a journalistically embarrassing point. After all, who can forget his predictions of a Labour majority in the 2010 General Election (here) or when he had the New Statesman sued by accusing the Conservatives of institutional and Dan Hannan of personal racism (here). Oh, and his speculation of a Diane Abbott win in the Labour leadership election (here)."

So, perhaps it is strange so soon after publishing this to be focusing on an article written by Macintyre. However, Macintyre has done a somewhat better job in his most recent piece for Prospect Magazine, and the sheer interest caused by its topic made it an irresistible choice.

Speaker Bercow's election did not take place at a celebrated time for the House of Commons. In the aftermath of a Speaker's ousting, Bercow ascended to the Chair of the House at a time of public disgust with MPs. More controversially for him, he ascended with minimal support from his own party. The controversy surrounding both Mr Speaker and his role in the Chair has not subsided since. Many Tory MPs, whilst contented to him fulfilling the role for the immediate future, still think he parades around like Royalty whilst acting like a sanctimonious dwarf (attributed to Conservatives Mark Pritchard and Simon Burns respectively). But despite his ongoing polarising effects - a divide Mrs Speaker frequently encourages through her Twitter account - how successful is Bercow in achieving his objectives in the Chair?

In one sense, Bercow is doing remarkably well. I have little doubt that his number one objective is self-promotion, and as a speaker who frequently interrupts the Prime Minister during PMQs and gives more speeches than many previous speakers, his profile is certainly high - both in the Westminster bubble and outside. In his secondary objective, of raising Parliamentary standards and championing back-benchers, he is having some success, too. Bercow frequently speaks of wanting to make the House of Commons matter again (something much more down to electoral arithmetic than the role of the Speaker on most occasions). While the outcome of the General Election often puts the relationship between the legislature and the executive beyond the Speaker's control, progress has been made with the setting up of a backbench business committee along with the greater use of Urgent Questions from back-benchers. The election by all MPs of the chairs of the select committees, too, is a step towards achieving his goals. However, at times one is led to wonder whether Bercow's championing of back-benchers in scrutinising the government is a means by which he can attack Cameron and his government by proxy, a relationship in which no love is lost, rather than exclusively championing back-benchers for their own sake.

Throughout this piece, Macintyre does a satisfactory job of charting Bercow's first two years in the role. He begins by highlighting some of the key themes of his Speakership. And he is right to assert at the end that Bercow's position is now safer than it has ever been. Let us not rejoice too soon that Macintyre is a reformed man. For that, he would have had to miss out the silliness of mentioning the unsubstantiated rumours that the reason some Tory MPs dislike Bercow is because his is Jewish. Remember Michael Howard, Mr Macintyre? If journalists were leopards, the metaphor would hold.

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