Thank you, Sir Peter, and welcome to your role as Father of the House. It was a privilege to serve as Speaker for the past 10 months and it would be an honour to serve again in this Parliament. I would discharge my duties impartially, not just between parties, but between individual Members. Above all, I would defend the rights of Back Benchers to hold the Government to account and to champion the causes dear to their hearts. For better or for worse, I have become known for insisting on short questions and short answers. Sometimes a short speech is also appropriate, so I shall leave it there in order to demonstrate that once in a while, at least, I do practise what I preach. Colleagues, thank you.
On a point of order, Sir Peter. May I ask a procedural question? This is an extremely important time for this House and for its democratic future. We are in the process of electing a Speaker without having the opportunity of understanding or hearing what his views are on the long-term future of this House. May I therefore ask what safeguards are in place should the Speaker decide to change the constitution of our country, either to consolidate or indeed to stabilise the Opposition or his position? What are the criteria required to support any such moves, for example, the 55% provision that the Government wish to embrace—it is thereby known as the Mugabe question?
I beg to move, That John Bercow do take the Chair of this House as Speaker.
First, Sir Peter, may I have the pleasure of congratulating you on your elevation to Father of the House? You first entered this Chamber in 1959, when Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister. Since then, you have established your reputation as a Member who speaks on matters with the greatest of clarity and with the deepest of passion; that has been your trademark. Indeed, it has been said that when Sir Peter Tapsell rises—[Laughter.] Ambiguity is always very dangerous. It has been said that when Sir Peter arises, he does so not to speak, but to intone superbly. We give you our affectionate congratulations on your position.
My purpose today is not to intone superbly or otherwise, but to recommend the right hon. Member for Buckingham. I am conscious that, as he has said, this is not an occasion for long speeches, and therefore I will emulate King Henry VIII, who is reputed to have said to each of his six wives, “Please don’t worry. I don’t intend to keep you long.”
The right hon. Gentleman was elected by secret ballot last June, and I must make a revelation: on that occasion, I did not vote for him. I voted for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, whom I congratulate on the position that he occupies today. The fact that I did not vote for the right hon. Member for Buckingham in a sense provided an opportunity, because I, like many others, have had the chance, with an open mind, to see him act as Speaker over the past 11 months, and I have been impressed.
I first entered this House in 1974, when Selwyn Lloyd was the Speaker, and I have seen six Speakers in operation. They all had very great strengths, and most of them had personal characteristics as well. I want, in the time available, to draw attention very briefly to three aspects that I think the House should consider in deciding whether the right hon. Gentleman should continue as Speaker.
First, one of the requirements is that the Speaker must be absolutely fair between individual Members. That goes without saying—it is standard to our procedures—and I do not think that anyone would dispute that the right hon. Gentleman has operated in that way.
The second requirement is, of course, that while a Speaker has great power and great authority, when the House is in turmoil or threatening to descend into turmoil, he must use his power not only with flexibility but, on occasion, with humour as well, in order to reduce the temperature that might otherwise rise. The greatest exponent of that was Speaker George Thomas, and I remember vividly one glorious evening when there was a real disruption in the House. A Scottish nationalist Member was speaking with a very strong Scottish accent and was speaking very fast, and some hon. Members from south of the border could not entirely follow what was being said. An English Labour Member got up on a point of order and said, “Mr Speaker, we English Members cannot understand a word that is being said. May we please have simultaneous translation?” There was immediate turmoil in the House and Speaker Thomas, known as one who spoke with a great Welsh lilt, said, “Order, order. There are many accents in this place. I sometimes wish I had one myself.” Immediately, the trauma was over. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman has those qualities, and has already shown them in abundance.
The third and final talent that is required is the recognition that the Speaker is of course the champion of the Back Benchers against not just those on the Government Front Bench but those on the Opposition Front Bench, too. I may say, having served on the Front Bench for more than 20 years, that I have come more to that point of view in recent years. It is crucial. Of course, the Speaker was originally the protector of this House against the Crown, but the threat today is not so much from the Crown and Her Majesty but from Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman has already shown himself to be splendidly robust at intervening on both Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition if they are going on too long and interrupting the smooth business of the House.
One final point, Sir Peter, before I sit down. We have had in the past 11 months a modern Speaker for a modern age. The comment was made some months ago that perhaps he was too young to be on the Speaker’s Chair. I do not think that that argument can be used very easily now. He is, I understand, 47, which makes him four years older than both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and eight years older than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The House can be reassured that if it chooses him today, we will have some experience and gravitas in the Speaker’s Chair. I commend him to the House.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 1A), That John Bercow do take the Chair of this House as Speaker.
Question agreed to.
Sir Peter Tapsell left the Chair, and John Bercow was conducted to the Chair by Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Joan Walley.
Mr Speaker-Elect (standing on the upper step): Before I take the Chair as Speaker-Elect, I wish first to thank the House for the honour that it has again bestowed upon me. I am aware that it is the greatest honour it can give to any of its Members. I pray that I shall justify its continuing confidence and I propose to do all within my power to preserve and to cherish its best traditions.
The Speaker-Elect sat down in the Chair and the Mace was placed upon the Table.
Thank you, Mr Speaker-Elect. On behalf of the whole House, may I be the first to offer you congratulations on your election? I note this is your second electoral success this month. I have to say that there were times during the general election when I was a little concerned about your safe return to Parliament, but I am glad to see that the mostly Conservative-inclined voters of Buckingham stuck with you. I hope that there will not be too much family strife if I welcome the fact that similarly inclined voters in St James’s ward in the London borough of Westminster did the same thing.
May I also congratulate my friend the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) on becoming the Father of the House. He first worked with a Conservative Prime Minister in 1955 when he was personal assistant to Anthony Eden. Famous for his put-downs, he once said to me, on one of our many trips through the No Lobby, “You call yourself a moderniser, but I think that’s rubbish. As far as I can see, you’re just like Harold and Rab.” His knowledge and experience of the House are unmatched, and he is dearly valued. Perhaps not everyone who is here today—those who have not sat through the past two Parliaments—will understand why I say that I believe he is worth his weight in gold.
Mr Speaker-Elect, I know that we were all shocked to learn what happened on Friday to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Mr Timms). Our thoughts should be with him, and we wish him a swift return to health and to his place in this House.
I should like to use this opportunity also to welcome all the newly elected Members of Parliament on both sides of the House. This is a new era for our politics and something of a new start—a chance for a new generation to show just how good this place can be. Everyone knows, Mr Speaker-Elect, that you have a deep respect and affection for this place. You believe in changing the role of Back Benchers and you know how much we need to do to improve the reputation of our Parliament. There will be new challenges, not least with the first coalition Government for 65 years. With 232 new Members of Parliament, this will very much be a new Parliament. We have 72 new women MPs and 16 new Members of Parliament from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and I am proud that my party played its part in delivering that result. It really does look and feel different; indeed, many of us are sitting next to people we have never sat next to before.
The real tests of this new Parliament will be building trust between Parliament and the people we serve, giving people the power to recall MPs engaged in wrongdoing, and making the right decisions in this House about everything from expenses to pensions to processes—everything necessary to clean up our politics. It is within our gift to do this and it is our responsibility to make sure that we do. I believe we can end the chronic short-termism of the past, we can put national interest ahead of party interest, and we can work together to find solutions to the profound problems facing our nation. Mr Speaker-Elect, you preside over a new Parliament, and we should all be determined to take our country in an historic new direction.
Mr Speaker-Elect: I thank the Prime Minister for that speech, and I call the Leader of the Opposition.
First, may I join in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) on what I should perhaps describe as his ascension to Father of the House? May I also congratulate you, Mr Speaker-Elect, on resuming the Speaker’s Chair? I know that you will be dedicated, that you are 100% committed to this House and that you will be fair to both sides and to Front and Back Benchers. You will have the full confidence and support of the House and you will receive my advice on occasions as well.
May I also congratulate all those Members who have been re-elected? We have had to place ourselves in front of our constituents and account for our work over the past years, and it is a great honour and privilege to be re-elected. No matter how many times I am re-elected, it is still a great thrill and an awesome privilege, even though I have been a Member of this House since I was 32—and, believe me, that was not recently.
I should like to congratulate and very warmly welcome all the new Members, who will receive a great deal of advice from older Members. They will say things like, “Learn the ropes and keep your head down—probably for about the first 10 years.” I suggest that new Members ignore that advice. Members of this House are elected by constituents to blaze a trail and speak up for them, and I am sure that that is what our new colleagues will do.
May I offer my congratulations to the new Prime Minister? He has an awesome and heavy responsibility. I think we all agree that we need strong and stable government, but we also need strong opposition. We will be a strong, effective, self-confident and determined Opposition, holding this Government to account.
I shall conclude with two further points. First, I join the Prime Minister in sending all our best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr Timms), who was attacked in his constituency at an advice surgery. I think we all send him our best wishes.
Finally, we in this House have our differences, but I think we are united in being very pleased and relieved that nowhere on these green Benches is there a member of the British National party.
I should like to begin by congratulating the new Father of the House, and yourself, Mr Speaker-Elect, on your re-election. In my brief contribution, I want to highlight the fact that there is no longer a second, UK-wide Opposition party in this House. That underlines the point that it is the parties of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland that, together with the Labour Opposition, will take on much of the work of scrutiny— [Interruption.] I am grateful for their helpful support in this endeavour.
I want to put one last thing on record. It is important that we should remember that many people who served in this House with great distinction during the last Parliament were not re-elected or retired before the election. On behalf of all parties and all corners of this House, I want to put on record our appreciation for all the work performed by those MPs in the last Parliament.
We wish you every success, Mr Speaker-Elect, and we are pleased that you have reiterated the importance of hearing the voices from all parts of the House and all the nations of the UK.
On behalf of Back Benchers, Mr Speaker-Elect, I should like to congratulate you, and I should like to thank the Father of the House for reminding me that I was only 12 when he was elected to the House. That has made me feel a lot younger.
Mr Speaker-Elect, you held the Chair for 10 months in the last Parliament. We remember that, as you described this afternoon, you were even handed and fair to all major parties and between Members. You were also rigorous, so I shall be brief.
One of the things that you advocated and that was debated at length was the need for new politics. This House must be able to hold the Executive—the Government—to account more effectively. On many occasions with my own Government, you allowed to be called to the House through private notice questions Ministers who did not report to the House things that they had announced in public before the House had had a chance to meet. I hope that that continues, despite the fact that it would appear that three major constitutional announcements that relate to the House—to the voting system and the upper Chamber, on expenditure cuts and on changes to how the House might rid itself of a Government that no longer had the confidence of the House—all appear to have been made prior to Parliament convening next week. One of those announcements was made only 48 hours before it would have been possible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to report directly to the House.
Mr Speaker-Elect, we look forward to you defending our interests as Back Benchers from whichever party, but we look forward most of all to your being able to reassert the ideas that were promoted before the last general election—that we should not be engaged in fixes and we should not have the old caballing, and that we should have open, honest, forthright debate and that parliamentarians should genuinely be able to hold this new coalition to account.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, who has reminded me of my commitment to scrutiny and accountability, and I happily underline that commitment this afternoon.
In closing my remarks, I should like to reiterate what has already been said by others: namely, new Members deserve a huge welcome and every possible encouragement and exhortation to go about their business in the way that they think fit on behalf of their constituents.
Resolved, That this House do now adjourn until tomorrow at ten minutes past Three o’clock. —(Mr Dunne.)