October 31, 2019 will stand as a momentous day in the history of this country. Generations of schoolchildren will study it. October 31, they will learn, was a day that marked the end of an era, and our first tentative steps, as a nation, into a brave but uncertain future.
The day, in short, that John Bercow stood down as Speaker of the Commons.
Of course, after the period of public mourning is at an end, the tribute programmes have all been shown and the mountains of drooping bouquets have been cleared from Parliament Square, some poor soul will be tasked with succeeding Mr Bercow. The challenge will be daunting. His successor will, at least metaphorically, have big shoes to fill. But today, at a hustings in Parliament, no fewer than nine candidates courageously stepped forward.
From the Conservatives came Dame Eleanor Laing, Sir Henry Bellingham, Sir Edward Leigh and Shailesh Vara. From Labour came Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Dame Rosie Winterton, Harriet Harman, Chris Bryant and Meg Hillier. Each took turns to make statements, answer questions, and issue pledges.
Naturally, everyone pledged to be spotlessly unbiased, and to wipe from their memory whatever opinions they currently hold on Brexit. Mr Bryant, in addition, pledged to clamp down on clapping in the chamber. Sir Lindsay pledged to clamp down not only on clapping but on singing, the taking of photographs and the wearing of T-shirts. Sir Henry pledged to reinstate the Speaker’s ancient ceremonial regalia, including full-bottomed wig. Dame Rosie, slightly less of a traditionalist, said she wouldn’t wear the wig, but might occasionally wear tights.
Everyone also pledged to do a lot less speaking than the current Speaker. Mr Bryant, in particular, spoke about the perils of verbosity several times, and at some length. In fact, he went on speaking about it even after the chairman of the hustings had tried to call him to order.
The bookmakers’ favourites are Sir Lindsay, whose style alternates between boxing referee and community talent show compere, and Ms Harman, who has the perpetual air of a headmistress forced to discipline a normally well-behaved pupil (she’s not angry, she’s just very disappointed). Sir Lindsay said that “the good folk of Chorley”, his constituency, were “really excited” about his prospects. Ms Harman said that “people in the street” were “talking about the Speaker election”.
Personally, though, I would keep an eye on Mr Bryant. He seems exceptionally eager to win. He presented all journalists at today’s hustings with a glossy campaign flyer he’d produced, complete with slogan (“An Umpire, Not a Player”), a 20-point manifesto, and a lengthy list of career achievements (“Former member of the parliamentary rugby team and reigning parliamentary swimming champion”).
His flyer also boasted endorsements from a number of leading MPs, the most prominent of whom was Michael Gove. Fingers crossed that, on the day of the vote, Mr Gove doesn’t withdraw his support and announce that he now intends to become Speaker himself.