Sir Lindsay Hoyle has been Speaker of the House of Commons for almost eighteen months now. There are frequently messages of disappointment with him floating around social media. One comment in particular gave me pause: “Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP is the worst speaker the House of Commons has ever had. Discuss.”
Hmm. He seems like a pleasant enough chap. Can you take against someone who allows himself to be photographed wearing a coral-pink sweater and accompanied by his menagerie of animals? Or fail to be touched by him taking a video call from a young man with a stammer who had challenged himself to speak to as many “important” people as he could to help raise awareness and to improve his own speech. Hoyle has also asked the House authorities to consider naming a tea-room after Julia Clifford, a popular member of the catering staff who died of Covid-19 in February shortly after finishing cancer treatment.
On the negative side, he is a suspected Brexiter (just look at the harm Brexit has already wrought if you don’t see why that’s a black mark) and the ‘bingo-caller’ persona he often adopts when moderating debates can be irritating. “We now go up north to Bradford, where Mary Cummins is waiting…” It may look innocuous written down, but you’ve got to do the voice!
Perhaps I was over-thinking this question – most peeps were giving rapid fire answers — but I set about trying to figure out how you might reasonably decide the issue one way or another. I decided you would first have to have an understanding of his role in order to be able to determine if he was fulfilling it or not; also a sense of his strengths and weaknesses, and a knowledge of past speakers going back to 1258 when the role was first recorded.
The Speaker versus the Executive
The role of Speaker is vital to our democracy. S/he is the chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons, representing the lower house in relations with the sovereign, the House of Lords, and non-parliamentary bodies. The Speaker presides over proceedings in the Commons and decides how business is conducted, though it is the government that decides what business comes to the House. From the perspective of the balance of power between the Legislature, the Executive/Crown and the Judiciary, this feels odd at the best of times. When the Executive has an 80-seat majority and MPs follow the whip rather than their consciences, parliament does not feel sovereign at all.
Hoyle’s predecessor, John Bercow, fought to maintain parliament’s position vis-à-vis the Executive, and to prevent it from encroaching still further on parliament’s sovereignty. Hoyle announced from the start that he would be a more ‘traditional’ sort of Speaker —despite the utter disrespect with which this government treats parliament, our constitution and our democracy. Examples of our government’s anti-democratic behaviour include leaking details of new policy to favoured client-journalists instead of announcing them in the House, fixing ridiculously short time-frames for the scrutiny and debate of laws and treaties and persistently misleading the House.
The Ministerial Code – approved by the Prime Minister – states that: “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.” What happens if the one doing the misleading is the Prime Minister himself? On several occasions Hoyle has called the Prime Minister to book, usually during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), but also through the medium of special statements to the House:
|22 July, 2020
|On Boris Johnson turning his back to the Speaker and addressing his backbenchers— “Can I just gently say to the prime minister… he may have to go to Specsavers, the chair is this way.”
|2 September, 2020
|Boris Johnson going off on a rant, nothing to do with the question— “We do need to try and answer the questions being put to the Prime Minister. It will be helpful to all those who are watching to know the answer.” PM: “Mr Speaker, I think it will be helpful to all those who are watching to know—” Speaker: “Prime Minister, I think I’ll make the decisions today. Come on.”
|9 September, 2020
|After the Government leaked new Covid-19 measures to the press— “It’s really not good enough for the government to make decisions of this kind in the way which shows insufficient regard for the importance of major policy announcements being made first to this house…”
|30 September, 2020
|After the Government leaked new Covid-19 measures to the press— “I look to the government to rebuild the trust with this House and not treat it with the contempt it has shown.”
|31 October, 2020
|When Johnson ignored the Speaker and started to talk anyway— “Sorry, prime minister, just—Prime Minister, Prime Minister… PRIME MINISTER! Can you just sit down?”
|18 November, 2020
|After Johnson yet again called the SNP the Scottish Nationalist Party— “Can I just say, it’s the Scottish National Party, not the Nationalist Party, otherwise the phones will be ringing long and hard—” PM: I’m so sorry, Mr Speaker. I’m so sorry. They’re national, but not nationalists. I see. Right. Speaker: “We can play pedantics another time.”
|25 November, 2020
|On Johnson asking instead of answering questions— “It’s prime minister’s questions not leader of the opposition’s questions.”
|13 January, 2021
|Cutting off one of Johnson’s irrelevant rants— “PM, there are questions, and sometimes you’ve got to try and answer the question to what was asked of you… It is Prime Minister’s questions.”
|13 January, 2021
|On Johnson calling Keir Starmer a hypocrite— “I do not believe anybody is a hypocrite in this chamber. I think we need to be a little bit careful about what we’re saying to each other. There was a ‘not truth’ earlier and there were also comparisons to others. Please, let’s keep the discipline in this chamber and the respect for each other. We’re tidying up how this parliament behaves and I certainly expect the leadership of both parties to make sure that that takes place.”
|10 February, 2021
|On Johnson ranting about the SNP— “Prime Minister, Prime Minister, we both know you’re only teasing him and trying to wind up the leader of the SNP. Please, let’s drop it.”
That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s a mere fraction of the times the Prime Minister should have been pulled up by the Speaker. Even the BBC has taken to fact-checking him after Prime Minister’s Questions. Perhaps Hoyle thinks he should only need to correct the Prime Minister on any given point just the once? Whatever his reasons for not intervening more often, there is a growing disappointment in his performance as Speaker. Hoyle seems to prefer to pick fights over breaches of arcane rules, such as Liz Saville Roberts saying “Happy St Patrick’s Day”, first in Gaelic and then in Welsh. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, he maintains the polite fiction that members of the House of Commons are all truthful and would not dream of misleading their fellow MPs.
“No member on either side would mislead or lie to the House,” Hoyle claimed at PMQs on 17 March.
A duty to the truth?
Lying proved to be a winning strategy for Johnson in the 2016 referendum campaign, the 2019 Tory leadership contest and the 2019 general election. He’s not going to give it up now. It’s part of the Trumpian playbook, which draws on Nazi communication theory.
“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”
Should we take comfort that the saying: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on” is a distillation of something Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710? That scurrilous politicians are nothing new? Perhaps we are fools for convincing ourselves that there has ever been any progress on that score, and for thinking ourselves so much better than our ancestors, and for discounting the idea that our countrymen could ever fall for a fraudulent buffoon like Boris Johnson.
“Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…”
What is clear from his remarks to the House on 11 March is that Hoyle will not come riding to our rescue. His philosophy is that the Speaker is not, and cannot be, responsible for the content of ministerial answers. “Erskine May says the Speaker’s responsibility for questions is limited to their compliance with the rules of the House,” he said. Ministers should adhere to the Ministerial Code and correct the record if a ‘mistake’ is made. It is not dishonourable to make a mistake, but to avoid admitting one is a different matter. In other words, it’s a liar’s charter. It’s the parliamentary equivalent of emblazoning a lie across the front page of a trashy tabloid newspaper, then a few weeks later, when the harm is done, publishing a retraction at the bottom of page 16.
“The Speaker cannot be dragged into arguments about whether a statement is inaccurate or not. This is a matter of political debate.” The parliamentary equivalent of caveat emptor – listener beware.
Hoyle is reproached for being a government toady, so it is worth noting that the tradition of Speaker-neutrality only emerged relatively recently. Before that, the Speaker was an agent of the Crown – the ruling monarch’s way of controlling parliament’s agenda. Today a Speaker ‘guarantees’ neutrality by renouncing their party at the start of their term. In return, they stand uncontested in any general election (which can seem undemocratic from their constituents’ perspective); enjoy a grace and favour apartment in Westminster Palace; and receive a ministerial stipend on top of their MP’s salary.
What of past Speakers? There have been several unsavoury characters. Sir John Trevor, the cross-eyed Speaker of the Commons (1685-87 and 1689-95), took to his bed for two days in 1695 when found guilty by the House of corruption. He took 1,000 guineas – roughly £126,000 in today’s money – to help expedite the Orphans’ Bill, to the benefit of the East India Company and the City of London Corporation. MPs removed him as Speaker and expelled him from the Commons. He didn’t have to give the money back, though, and retained his judicial position as Master of the Rolls until his death in 1717.
Fletcher Norton was an aggressive, indiscreet and unpopular Speaker of the Commons (1770-80). He too suffered from the sin of greed, and was derided by satirists as “Sir Bullface Doublefee”. He married his daughter Grace off to the Earl of Portsmouth, 16 years her junior and known to be of unsound mind. The Earl’s estate was controlled by trustees, one of whom was Grace’s eldest brother William.
More recently, Michael Martin told a hushed House of Commons that he would be stepping down on 21 June 2009, after fellow MPs accused him of condoning an expenses system open to abuse. Martin chose to fall on his sword after it became clear he no longer enjoyed cross party support or that of the PM of the day, Gordon Brown. The expenses some MPs were submitting were utterly ridiculous, and included claims for maintenance of a helipad (Sir Michael Spicer, Con), cleaning out a moat (Douglas Hogg, Con), and the purchase of a floating duck house (Sir Peter Viggers, Con). One hundred and forty-nine MPs stood down in the 2010 general election as a result of the scandal. Sadly, it wasn’t the end of egregious expense claims. In 2013, millionaire Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi had to apologise for claiming for thousands of pounds of energy costs for heating his stables (why is he still an MP?).
The evidence suggests Hoyle is not the worst ever Speaker of the House of Commons. However, it also suggests that he is out of his depth. His refusal to tackle deliberate and blatant untruths in the House means that a fundamental condition for democracy – that the demos be informed – is not met. With 87 per cent of the British press (by circulation) pro-government, and usually willing to turn a deaf ear to the industrial-scale lies coming out of Number Ten, and the Tory takeover of the BBC converting it from a public to a state broadcaster, members of the electorate are increasingly up against it to get to the truth. Given the weight of this Trumpian onslaught, if the House of Commons can no longer be relied on as a source of truth, our democracy is in serious peril.