Memorandum by the Clerk of the House
1. This paper is intended to assist the
Committee in its inquiry into the Rules governing the Election
of a Speaker. It falls into three Parts. The first is a survey
of the occasions since 1817 when elections to the Chair were contested.
The unusually long sweep of this part of the evidence is deliberate.
The House's understanding and expectations of the Speakership
are deeply engrained, and it is important, before coming to conclusions
on what change may now be necessary, to see how and in what circumstances
these expectations came into being. For example, the reasons advanced
by Peel as long ago as 1841 for not claiming the Speakership for
his victorious party conditioned the nineteenth and to some extent
twentieth century view of the relationship between elections to
the Chair and party politics.
2. The second Part deals briefly with the
change made in the method of electing a Speaker following the
Procedure Committee study of the matter in 1972, also with the
further thought given to the topic in 1996.
3. Finally, I have included in the third
Part some observations which I hope the Committee find relevant
to their substantive decisions, not of course suggesting what
these decisions should be but simply drawing attention to the
problems which will demand solution.
4. There were a group of contested elections
in the early part of the nineteenth century, just as modern political
parties and the modern Speakership took shape. They occurred in
1817, 1833, 1835 and 1839: and all but one of them involved Mr
5. Manners-Sutton was a Tory. His first
election in 1817 was opposed by the Whigs.
He was re-elected unopposed in the new Parliaments of 1819, 1820,
1826, 1830 and 1831.
In 1833 his re-election to the Chair was unsuccessfully opposed,
(from the back-benches, by Radical and Irish Members).
In 1835, however, the Whigs blamed Manners-Sutton for intriguing
to bring about their dismissal from office. He failed to secure
re-election to the Chair by ten votes, 306 to 316, being succeeded
by Mr Speaker Abercromby. It is significant however that not all
the Whigs voted against Manners-Sutton's continuing in the Chair:
some at least were opposed to rejecting a Speaker who had presided
over the House in the previous Parliament.
This is the last time on which a Speaker was returned at a General
Election and not re-elected to the Chair.
6. Mr Speaker Abercromby was re-elected
in 1837: he resigned in 1839. The Whigs then carried by 18 votes
the election of their candidate, who became Mr Speaker Shaw Lefevre.
7. When in 1841 the Tories returned to power,
they re-elected Shaw Lefevre. Sir Robert Peel said that he would
vote for the returning Speaker because it was "most in conformity
with precedents in the best periods of the history of the country".
Only in 1780 and 1835, he argued, had that course not been followed.
Peel went on:
I did not think it necessary [in 1835 and 1837]
that the person elected to the Chair, who had conscientiously
and ably performed his duties, should be displaced because his
political opinions were not consonant to those of the majority
of the House . . . I do not mean to say that the principle ought
to be held as an inflexible and invariable rule. It may be perfectly
competent to any man to object to a re-election on the ground
of neglect of duty or conduct which may show an individual to
be incompetent to the office . . . [but Shaw Lefevre had] by his
ability, impartiality and integrity secured the confidence of
8. Between 1841 and 1895, three Speakers
were elected in 13 elections. None of these elections was contested.
9. In 1895, as the Parliament elected in
1892 was coming to an end, the Speaker in office resigned. In
contrast to the many decades of uncontested elections, this election
was hotly disputed for a number of reasons. In the first place,
there had been five consecutive Liberal Speakers, and the Conservative
thought it was their turn to have the prize. Secondly, the Conservative
Opposition expected to win the forthcoming election, and resented
what they saw as a Liberal attempt to use their majority to elect
a Speaker in effect for the next Parliament. They did not guarantee
to re-elect Gully, the Liberal candidate, if they became the government
and once he had been elected to the Chair they opposed him at
the General Election.
Finally, there were evidently doubts about the candidate's personal
suitability. Gully was nevertheless elected to the Chair by eleven
In the event, the Conservatives did not carry out their threat
to replace the Speaker in the new Parliament. Indeed, Gully was
re-elected on a Conservative motion.
10. There was no contested election for
the Chair between 1895 and 1951a period almost identical
in length with that separating the previous two contested elections,
1841 and 1895. In those years, the House elected four Speakers
in 18 elections. In that period, it is noticeable that in 1906,
a previously Conservative Speaker was re-elected without opposition
by a Parliament in which the Liberals had a very large majority;
and in 1945, the newly-returned Labour House re-elected a Speaker
who had been first elected to the House as a Conservative.
11. In 1951, with a Conservative government
having recently taken office, there was a contest for the Speakership
between Mr W S Morrison and Major Milner, who had been a Deputy
Speaker in the previous Parliament.
There was a misunderstanding between the Conservative and Labour
parties, the former believing that the Labour party would second
Mr Morrison, while the latter were insistent that the claims of
Major Milner should be considered.
Mr Speaker Morrison was not opposed when he sought re-election
to the Chair in 1955. The misunderstanding of 1951 shows how hard
it will probably always be to elect a new Speaker, when there
is also a new Parliament and a new government.
12. Again, there followed a number of years
when elections were not contested, in this case from 1951 until
1992, leaving aside the 1971 case when there was a division but
no real contest (see paragraph 14). In that period there were
and 13 elections to the Chair.
13. In the years in question, however, the
House was not wholly at ease with the procedures for election.
The principal reason for concern was the perceived lack of consultation
by the government, which was felt to exclude the Opposition or
Members on the back-benches. Although there was no election when
Sir Harry Hylton-Foster became Speaker in 1959 , the then Leader
of the Opposition (Mr Gaitskell) expressed "strong dissatisfaction
with and disapproval of the methods by which in practice this
election has been conducted".
14. In 1971, this dissatisfaction took the
form of the proposal of a second candidate who, when called on
to submit himself to the House, asked that his name should not
go forward. However, since a motion to elect him had been made
and seconded, a division took place on the Question that the first
Member proposed, Mr Selwyn Lloyd, take the Chair as Speaker. (It
should be recalled that under the old procedure, there was no
division if only one name was proposed). Comments by Members in
the debate included the proposal that there should be "a
system of nominations followed by a secret ballot".
The outcome was an inquiry by the Procedure Committee, which led
to a change in the method of election (see paragraph 20).
15. The elections of new Speakers in 1976
and 1983 were unopposed. The new procedures were not therefore
put into operation until the nest contested election, in 1992.
The amendment proposing Miss Boothroyd in place of Mr Peter Brooke
was agreed to by 372 votes to 238, and the Main question was agreed
Madam Speaker Boothroyd was re-elected in 1997.
16. In 2000, Madam Speaker Boothroyd resigned.
As the Committee will recall, there were 12 candidates in the
ensuing electionitself an unusual event: there had never
been more than two names formally before the House in any contested
election (though other candidates were in the background at preceding
elections). Each of the 12 nominations was divided on, and the
Speaker was not elected until nearly seven hours after the beginning
of the sitting.
17. In 1972, the Procedure Committee made
a report on The Election of a Speaker.
The immediate occasion of undertaking the inquiry was the events
of 1971, and the nomination of the Member who was unwilling to
stand, but whose name had been put forward simply in order to
permit a division to take place (see paragraph 14).
18. The Committee observed that there had
been two contested elections in the preceding 20 years (1951 and
1971) though the previous occasion was as far away as 1895. They
recorded the recent increase in the number of complaints made
in the course of the election of a Speaker, even uncontested elections.
These centred on perceived lack of consultation, deficiencies
in the procedure, and qualifications of the candidates (see paragraphs
19. The procedure which was the subject
of criticism was very ancient. The Clerk presided, standing and
pointing to Members in place of calling their names aloud as a
Speaker would do. He directed Members to the lobbies and appointed
tellers if the House divided. He could not however, respond if
a point of order were raised, or accept a dilatory motion.
If only one Member's name were proposed, it was not the practice
of the House to divide against the nominee: the new Speaker was
elected by acclamation.
20. The Procedure Committee recommended
that if the retiring Speaker did not preside over the election
of his or her successor, the Member with the longest unbroken
period of service present in the House on the back-benches should
do so. He or she should have "powers to enable him to exercise
his functions in the House with proper authority".
A question should be put on the election of a sole candidate.
If there were more than one candidate, the old procedure of successive
substantive motions, each in favour of a particular candidate,
should be abandoned. Its place should be taken by the proposal
of a question for the election of the first nominee, followed
by amendments to the original motion bringing forward the names
of alternatives, and finallyif no amendment was carriedby
the putting of the question on the original motion. The
argument was that by first voting on the second candidate (as
an amendment to the original question) the House would gauge the
degree of support he or she had attracted. If that proposition
were defeated by a large majority, "the unanimous election
of the first or of another candidate might thereby be secured,
a result which your committee believe to be highly desirable".
21. The Committee's recommendations were
agreed to by the House in August 1972,
in what is now Standing Order No 1.
22. Elections to the Chair were uncontested
for 20 years. In 1992, there was a contested election, and Madam
Speaker Boothroyd was elected when the amendment nominating her
was carried, and the original question as amended was agreed to.
The Procedure Committee looked into the matter once more in 1996,
as part of a report on Proceedings at the start of a Parliament.
23. It had been argued that in 1992 "discord"
on the government side of the House had prevented the emergence
of a candidate who might have enjoyed greater support. The Committee
had little sympathy with that view. They concluded that "the
onus is plainly on the parties concerned to agree on their favoured
candidate and failure to do so cannot be attributed to procedural
More generally, while the Committee admitted that the burden laid
on the Father of the House to decide who is to catch his eye to
move the first candidate was something of a weakness, the 1972
solution should not be changed. "There is in our view no
better system and many worse".
24. Before coming to a conclusion on whether
any change in the method of electing a Speaker is required, the
Committee may wish to look at the situation broadly and analyse
the circumstances in which the demand for change has arisen. Paragraphs
25 to 28 attempt to do this: paragraphs 29 to 40 consider three
particular issues to be addressedcanvassing, a ballot,
(i) General analysis
25. Contested elections are relatively rare
and the circumstances of each unique, so that the possibility
of reviewing the matter in its broadest context has arisen infrequently.
It seems clear however from the historical background in paragraphs
4 to 16 that concern about the procedure began seriously somewhere
around the 1950's. It has been gathering speed over the last half-century,
and was not halted by the reforms of 1971-72. If there is a secular
trend, it seems to point to the timeliness of the present review.
26. The events of 23 October 2000 were not
fundamentally at odds with the history of the previous half-century
of argument: indeed, they can be seen as the logical extension
of it. Yet as the same time, the background to that election was
not that the House was still struggling to free the election of
the Speaker from the constraints of government or party direction.
The problem was that it seems to have won these battles but did
not have a procedure, which was either adequate for that new situation
or capable of dealing with numerous candidacies. The opportunity,
which faces the Committee, is to devise a system of election,
which both entrenches the freedom enjoyed by the House in the
election of 2000, and is devised to cope with a broader range
of possible circumstances.
27. At the same time, there are many features
of the present arrangements which the Committee will wish to carry
over into any new regime, such as the complete political impartiality
of the Chair. This may need to be manifest in procedural terms,
perhaps by codifying the need for proposers and seconders to be
from different parties in the House (for which see paragraph 33).
Whatever new procedure may be devised, there will be a decision
to be taken on how far it will incorporate elements of the old.
I have in mind, for example, ensuring that a newly-elected Speaker
is supported, at the final stage of decision-taking, by as high
a proportion of the membership of the House as possible.
28. Finally, it is axiomatic that any solution
put forward by the Committee will have to be robust enough to
take account of all situationsappointment of a new Speaker
at the beginning of a Parliament; appointment of a new Speaker
in the place of a Speaker who has died or who resigns in the course
of a Parliament; and election in a new Parliament of a Member
who had been Speaker in the previous Parliament.
29. The following paragraphs set out some
detailed practical matters which the Committee may wish to bear
in mind in coming to its substantive recommendations.
30. The practice of the House, universally
observed so far as I know until the last election to the Chair,
was that the candidates did not openly seek support on the basis
of their attitudes or policies in areas of concern to the Chair.
It is not for me to say whether or not the old practice should
be re-affirmed: it may in any case prove difficult to get the
genie back into the bottle. There are however some considerations
which the Committee may wish to give thought to.
31. Every Speakership is different, and
the problems which confront each Speaker are not identical to
those faced by his or her predecessor. Nevertheless, it is truism
that the Speaker is the servant of the House and there are thus
limits to what he or she can do. Canvassing surely ought not to
lead to undertakings being given which, if implemented, would
take the role of the Speaker in a direction or into an area not
intended by the House.
32. These considerations seem to point to
recommendations restricting in some detail the activities of candidates
for the Speakership in presenting themselves to their "electorate",
or (if the Committee prefer to return to the no-canvassing traditions)
a clear indication that canvassing should not be the practice
of the House.
(iii) A ballot
33. In the course of the election of 2000,
most of the critics of the current practice favoured a ballot.
Many decisions would be implied in such a change on which it would
not be proper for me to advise. However, the Committee may be
assisted by a check-list of some of the choices facing them should
it be agreed to recommend a balloting procedure. These include:
arrangements for proposing and seconding
candidates, including any proposals for a minimum number of signatures
to make a nomination effective, and perhaps also demanding cross-party
time-limits for nominations and casting
of votes (and on this subject see also paragraphs 34 and 35);
setting a threshold of support below
which a candidacy would not be permitted to be included in the
whether the ballot should be open
what the voting system should be;
whether an absolute majority of the
House should be required for final election;
determining the balance between the
balloting process and any proceedings on the floor of the House,
and (if there is to be a second stage on the floor) deciding what
provision should be made for eliminating or run-off ballots to
establish those who proceed to the second stage;
establishing the procedure (if any)
on the floor of the House, including whether motions should continue
to be seconded, and whether the candidates should address the
arrangements for counting votes;
the procedure to be used when there
is only one nominee.
34. The timing consequences of a ballot
to elect a Speaker (whether at the beginning of a new Parliament
or in mid-session) are of crucial importance. In the case of a
new Parliament, the present arrangements permit the Speaker to
be elected as the first business on the first day. Thereafter
the taking of the oath by the newly-elected Speaker allows him
or her to preside over the swearing of the House at large. Under
the present arrangements, selecting a candidate or candidates
for the Speakership will usually have taken place informally on
days before the new Parliament meets. A ballot, however, demands
specific and reasonable periods of noticeof nomination
and of the ballot process itselfand it may be considered
that these should not begin until Members have gathered at Westminster.
35. The problems are less acute in the case
of the sudden resignation or death of a Speaker in mid-session,
perhaps in the middle of a sitting week, or on a time-scale similar
to that of 2000. Nevertheless, a ballot ought to be capable in
these circumstances of permitting the election of a Speaker without
loss of much more time than the present arrangements.
36. Though I do not wish to express any
view on whether or not a ballot arrangement would be appropriate,
it may be useful to summarise the arguments deployed by the Committee's
predecessors in coming to the conclusion that it would not. This,
after all, is the case, which any favourable recommendation will
have to meet. The Procedure Committee in 1972
noted arguments that a secret ballot reduced the influence of
the government and party leaders. There was no reason (it was
said) for the Speaker to be elected by a process different from
that used by the major parties in electing their leaders. Opposite
arguments were also put. A ballot might weaken the Speaker's authority
and impartiality, and diminish continuity. It would accentuate
divisions and not compose them. Balloted votes might still break
down on party lines. The Committee's conclusions were grounded
on the need for Members to be publicly accountable for their votes,
on the likelihood that a ballot would lead to canvassing and lobbying
which would be undesirable, and on the argument that a ballot
would encourage opposition to a candidate who, with proper consultation,
might have commended himself or herself to the House.
37. The Committee in 1996 identified some
of the subsidiary decisions involved in adopting a ballot.
There would have to be advance declaration of candidates, including
perhaps rules about notice and number of supporters. The choice
of electoral system might also involve a decision about the majority
required and rules for the elimination of the less successful
The Committee recommended no change in the then current procedure.
(iv) Elections and re-elections
38. If any new procedure is to respect the
long-standing tradition of the House however (and for other reasons
which are touched on below) the Committee may think it wise to
recommend a procedure in the last of the cases in paragraph 28,
the re-election of a "sitting" Speaker, which differs
from that of the other two.
39. Paragraph 5 shows that, for as long
as the Speakership has been fully non-partisanthat is,
going back to Shaw Lefevre in 1841the House has not refused
to re-elect to the Chair a Member who had been Speaker in the
previous Parliament. Even in 1835, the last occasion on which
this happened, there were those in the majority party who were
unhappy at what was done. Any other arrangement would effectively
put a newly elected Speaker "on probation"; and nothing
could be more calculated than that to bring party politics into
elections to the Chair.
40. The Committee may also wish to reflect
on the wider consequences of throwing doubt on the existing presumption
that a "sitting" Speaker will be re-elected to the Chair.
When first elected, a Speaker resigns from his or her political
party. A Speaker in office when a General Election is called fights
that election as "The Speaker seeking re-election".
If the House did not normally return the "sitting" Speaker
to the Chair, and the defeated candidate chose not to leave the
House (itself a major break with tradition over centuries) the
outcome would be anomalous indeed.
41. At the same time, when such occasions
arise, it perhaps should remain possible for the House (as under
the "ancient" procedure before 1971 it was not) for
a vote to take place on a re-election. The easiest way to provide
for that would be to except such occasions from whatever new procedure
42. A Member of the House (whether the Father
of the House or the senior Deputy Speaker in the last Parliament
who is returned to the new House is a matter for decision) would
be in the Chair, armed with all the powers of the Speaker. The
Question for the re-election of a "sitting" Speaker
would be put. The proposer and seconder might speak, and the candidate
might submit himself or herself to the House, in accordance with
any recommendation of the Committee accepted by the House. The
main point is that the Question would be unamendable. Thus the
House would be able to reject a "sitting" Speakeras
it has since 1971but there would be no head-to-head contest,
and the long-standing tradition of the House would be respected.
43. There is wide admiration for the Speakership
of the House of Commons. The Westminster model is found (to varying
degrees) in the parliaments of the Commonwealth who stand in the
"Anglo-Saxon" tradition, as well as in Parliaments which
participate in a modified version of that tradition (such as the
and those in Europe which have developed quite differently. That
regard for the position of the Speaker in the House of Commons
is, in my experience, indissolubly linked to its wholly non-partisan
character, established over centuries. That seems to me to be
the principle, which ought to survive any practical changes in
the rules for the method of electing a Speaker.
W R McKay
19 December 2000
1 CJ (1817) 307, Manners-Sutton had a majority of 160. Back
CJ (1818-19) 8; ibid (1819-20) 108; ibid (1826-28)
8; ibid (1830-31) 6; and ibid (1831) 522. Back
(1833) 4. He had a majority of 210. Back
CJ (1835) 5. Back
CJ (1839) 244. The voting was 317 to 299. Back
Parl Deb third series, vol 59, c 7. Back
Mr Speaker Denison (1857-72): Mr Speaker Brand (1872-84): and
Mr Speaker Peel-the Prime Minister's son-from 1884 to 1895. Back
Parl Deb fourth series vol 32, c 1389. Back
In fact the "Speaker seeking re-election" increased
his majority, which few Liberal candidates did at that Election. Back
CJ (1895) 149. The voting was 285 to 274. Back
Mr Speaker Lowther (1905-21), Mr Speaker Whitley (1921-28), Mr
Speaker Fitzroy (1928-43) and Mr Speaker Clifton-Brown (1943-51). Back
It is also the case however that, even though there was no contested
election between these years, Members did criticise the conduct
in a previous Parliament of a Speaker returned to the House and
seeking re-election to the Chair. For example Parl Deb fifth series,
vol 21, c 8-9; HC Deb (1921) vol 141, c 308-12; and ibid
(1942-43) vol 387, c 617-21. Back
CJ (1951-52) 5. Mr Speaker Morrison's majority was 67-318 to 231. Back
HC Deb (1951-52) vol 493, c 12-15. Back
Speaker Sir Harry Hylton-Foster (1959-65); Mr Speaker King (1965-71);
Mr Speaker Selwyn Lloyd (1971-76); Mr Speaker Thomas (1976-83);
and Mr Speaker Weatherill (1983-92). Back
HC Deb (1959-60) vol 612, c 6. Back
HC Deb (1970-71) vol 809, c 9. Back
CJ (1992-93) 2. Back
CJ (1997-98) 2. Back
HC Deb (1999-2000) 355, c 1ff. Back
HC 111 (1971-72). Back
In defence of the ancient usage, no such circumstance had ever
This part of the procedure was not quite as old as the rest.
Evidently before 1700 a question was put on the election of a
sole candidate. Back
HC 111 (1971-72) paragraph 24. Back
ibid paragraph 25. Back
CJ (1971-72) 514-5. Back
HC 386 (1995-96). Back
ibid paragraph 19. Back
ibid paragraph 22. Back
In that context, it is relevant to note that the results of the
1997 General Election were fully available only on the Friday
before the election of the Speaker on the following Wednesday. Back
HC 111 (1971-72) paragraphs 19-20. Back
HC 386 (1995-96) paragraphs 20-21. Back
The report also quoted a case in 1979 when the election of the
Speaker of the Swedish Riksdag was declared invalid (because
there had been a miscount) a fortnight after the successful candidate
took the Chair. Back
Of course, provision would have to be made for an election by
what might be regarded as the "standard" procedure-whatever
model the Committee and the House favour-to follow any rejection
of the "sitting" Speaker. A double procedure of this
kind would need to be considered in the light of what is said
about time in paragraph 33. Back
The American Speakership may be seen as sharing the Westminster
tradition up to but not beyond the development here of a fully
bi-partisan office. Back