The role of the Speaker

A friend asked me about the role of the Speaker in the event of a hung Parliament and in particular what the Speaker does if there is a tied vote.  He assumed the Speaker would normally vote with the Government.

If there is a tied vote, the Speaker exercises a casting vote.  Formally, he is free to vote as he wishes without giving a reason.  However, in order to avoid any impression of partiality, he normally follows precedent.  Three basic principles have emerged from how Speakers have utilised their casting votes in the past:

1. That the Speaker should always vote for further discussion where that is possible.

2. That where no further discussion is possible, decisions should not be taken except by a majority.

3. That a casting vote on an amendment to a Bill should leave the Bill in its existing form.

These principles have emerged despite the fact, as noted in Erskine May, that successive Speakers have not always been consistent.

In the Lords, there is no casting vote.  The occupant of the Woolsack has an original vote but not a casting vote.  If a vote is tied, the outcome is determined by Standing Order,  which essentially states that a motion is rejected unless there is a majority in its favour.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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32 Responses to The role of the Speaker

  1. Dave H says:

    That Lords principle is interesting – so if the motion reads “the House should adopt X” and there’s a tie, then X is not adopted, whereas “the House should not adopt X” means that X is adopted in the event of a tie.

    Or is there a Standing Order that prescribes the form of motions to bias it one way of the other? I’m sure that elsewhere we’ve already touched on wording a referendum to benefit from the preference for voting ‘yes’.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dave H: Any motion to amend or reject is negatived unless there is a majority in its favour; likewise, on any other motion, the question is decided in the negative unless there is a majority in its favour. The answer to your question is thus yes, though a proposal to not adopt X is likely to be an amendment to a motion to adopt X. In the unlikely event of both votes being tied, then nothing is decided!

  2. Chris K says:

    If there was a Vote of No Confidence in the Commons which was passed, and then the Government responded with a Vote of Confidence which was a tie – how, according to principles, should the Speaker vote?

    Obviously if he votes against the Government he would be closing off further discussion, but he would also be overturning an established majority if he votes with the Government, surely?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Chris K: If the Government lost a vote of no confidence, there would not be a later vote of confidence. If a vote of no confidence is carried, the PM then, by convention, has either to resign or request a dissolution.

      However, you raise an important question as to what would happen in a tied vote in any vote of confidence. This was a very real possibility in the vote of confidence on 28 March 1979. Realising that a tied vote was possible, the Speaker, George Thomas, consulted the Clerk and, when approached by both Government and Opposition to know what he would do in that situation, told them that he would rely on Speaker Denison’s ruling which would mean that in this case he would vote with the Government.

      • Chris K says:

        That’s very interesting. I did wonder about that.

        I remember watching (or rather listening to) the replay of 1979 no confidence motion on BBC Parliament last year. I note that the Speaker, the fantastic George Thomas, said “I think the noes have it” after the voice vote before being challenged and calling the division. Did the occupant of the Chair always used to try and avoid a division, or was it just on this special occasion? I must say I didn’t think the ‘noes’ were any more vocal than the ‘ayes’!

      • Lord Norton says:

        Chris K: It is quite usual for the occupant of the Chair to say ‘I think the Ayes (or Noes) have it’. This is then followed by the other side shouting ‘No’ (or ‘Aye’) and the Speaker clearing the Bar ready for a division.

  3. ladytizzy says:

    Thank you, that goes some way to answer an earlier question of why some of the media have persisted with the magic number of 326 for an absolute majority.

    However, as today’s Daily Politics show reminded me, there are likely to be a handful of abstentionist MPs.

    On the assumption that the Speaker loses his seat, and that there is a hung parliament, and that first dibs goes to Gordon Brown, how will the new Speaker be selected and what authority will he present to a not very amused electorate?

  4. Lord Norton says:

    ladytizzy: Whether or not there is a hung Parliament, or a new PM, has no bearing on the actual procedure governing the election of a Speaker. The election of a Speaker is the first order of business in a new Parliament and is presided over by the Father of the House. If the Speaker loses his seat, then obviously a new candidate will have to be put forward. This may be influenced by the political configuration of the House.

  5. James says:

    Fascinating stuff, above! Looking more at the election of a Speaker, how absolute is the convention that the Speaker should rotate between parties? The current Speaker is Conservative, and may be ejected by his constituents in Buckingham. If that were to happen, and in a very close hung Parliament, the selection of an MP from either Tory or Labour could alter the balance of power. How would the parties be likely to react in that case?

    • Lord Norton says:

      James: There isn’t such a convention. Many parliamentarians believe that there is, but there has been no consistent practice of the Speakership rotating between parties. If there was a vacancy for the Speakership in the new Parliament, the party of the candidates for the post may be taken into consideration, but bear in mind that the normal practice is to achieve balance between the Speaker and the three deputies: all four are non-voting Members, so drawing on two Conservatives and two Labour would have no impact on the overall balance of the House.

      • James says:

        Thank you for your answer – very prompt! I now understand.

        Of course, in a mathematical sense, the solution of 2 Conservatives and 2 Labour MPs would not impact on the overall balance of the House when set against the old certainties of adversarial politics. It would however effectively increase the voting bloc of the Liberal Democrats and the other parties – if only by less than 1% (4 out of 650 MPs). In a knife edge Parliament, that could matter!

        I’ve often heard that an absolute majority is 326 (one more than half of all MPs). That seems to ignore the 4 non-voting Speaker / Deputies. Are there occasions on when these 4 do vote, or should the real absolute majority be set at ((650-4)/2)+1 = 324?

      • Lord Norton says:

        James: Though three MPs will serve as Deputies, all three will be elected under a party label and so count in their respective party’s tally of seats. In practice, the situation is affected as much by the fact that Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats. Five Sinn Fein MPs were elected in 2005. However many are elected this time will need substracting from the total in order to give you the actual number of voting MPs in the new House. Once the House elects the Deputy Speakers, then this will further affect the voting strength.

  6. Watson Chan says:

    Here in Hong Kong, the government has tabled a proposal on the election of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council members in 2012 to the Legislative Council. The President of the Council (equivalent to the Speaker of the House) has announced that he may caste a vote on that proposal to ensure its passage and he would resign before voting. Someone has opined that according to the Westminster tradition, the Speaker may caste such a decisive vote, but he would not publicise his move and would only resign afterwards. We have gone through Erskine May and the Standing Orders of the House as well as all available resources on the web but couldn’t find any such incidents happening in the House before. Therefore, we would appreciate very much if you could let us know if such cases exist and some brief information on them.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Watson Chan: As far as I am aware, there is no precedent in the experience of the UK Parliament. It could be argued that, since the Speaker is formally free to exercise a vote as he wishes in the event of a tied vote, he could vote in a way that is politically contentious and not governed by precedent, and then take the honourable course and resign (possibly in anticipation of pressure to remove him anyway, in such a circumstance). However, this would only apply in the context of a tied vote – the Speaker no longer exercises an original vote (as was possible in Committee of the Whole House up until late in the 19th Century, but is now obsolete).

      The nearest I could find for a precedent of a Speaker resigning from anything as a result of the way a casting vote was exercised was in 1742: on that occasion, Arthur Onslow exercised his casting vote in a way that was seen as politically contentious and the following day resigned, not as Speaker but as Treasurer of the Navy (in the days when one could hold another post) to dispel rumours he was holding it for his personal benefit. As I say, that is the closest I could come to finding a precedent, but it is not really relevant to today or the scenario you outline.

  7. If Bercow is returned as Speaker, and his wife elected as a Labour concillor, the manner in which he handles the Labour Party in disputes will be examined very closely indeed.

  8. The Duke of Waltham says:

    Just to make sure I understand correctly: the Speaker has no original vote but only a casting vote, while the Deputy Speakers have neither. Do they formally have an original vote but do not cast it by convention, or are they the only sitting MPs with no right to vote? It doesn’t make much of a practical difference, given the precedent-based nature of the Speaker’s casting vote, but there is a technical difference nonetheless.

    • The Duke of Waltham says:

      All this assuming, of course, that the Deputy Speakers in question are in the Chamber but not in the Chair. I do wonder, now that I think of it, to what extent they attend debates as regular MPs (i.e., not simply waiting to replace someone).

    • Lord Norton says:

      DoW: The Deputy Speaker when in the Chair exercises the same powers as the Speaker. In 1990, for example, there was a tied vote on an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill: the Deputy Speaker exercised the casting vote in line with precedent.

      In the event of a tied vote in a public bill (formerly standing) committee, the MP chairing will exercise a casting vote following the same principles as those of the Speaker.

      The Speaker and the Deputy Speakers by convention do not vote. There is no formal requirement for them not to vote.

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        Thank you for explaining that, My Lord. But I still wonder to what extent a Deputy Speaker may participate in a debate (obviously with someone else presiding), or at least sit on the benches of their party. Or would their status force them to watch a debate in which they are interested from the galleries or television?

        To phrase it another way, it is not entirely clear how “part-time” the duties of these three MPs are with regards to their status as Deputy Speakers (in contrast to the clearly full-time and at-all-times neutral Speaker).

      • Lord Norton says:

        DoW: I have not done a study of what time, if any, they spend in the House when not in the Chair. They are barred from voting, speaking or tabling amendments, so there is limited incentive. However, Betty Boothroyd when she became a Deputy Speaker spent some time sitting on the side benches during debates, primarily to help familiarise herself with Members’ names and faces.

  9. Dave H says:

    So what happens if Bercow, having been returned to Parliament as MP for Buckingham uncontested by the main parties, fails to secure re-election as Speaker? Do they just give him a peerage and have a properly-contested by-election in Buckingham or can he just go back and sit on the benches as an MP? Or is he expected to resign as an MP and hope for a peerage in due course?

    If he loses his seat, does he qualify for a peerage as an ex-Speaker? When (if ever) was the last time a Speaker lost his seat at an election?

    (hey, in the absense of the weekly quiz, I set my own…)

    • The Duke of Waltham says:

      Technically, he is only Speaker if and after he is elected to the position; until then, he is an independent MP, and if he fails to be elected as Speaker, he will continue to sit in the opposition benches but without any party affiliation. There is no recent precedent for this, but I think that, as an elected MP, he’d have every right, and he could conceivably continue his career as a Member of Parliament. I do not know whether he would seek to sacrifice his neutrality by joining a party in this case, and I also cannot say whether a Deputy Speakership might be offered to him either as a consolation prize or in a deal that would have him stand down during the Speakership election, but he comes across as a person who enjoys being in the House and I have a feeling that he wouldn’t just sit in a corner and sulk.

      In the unlikely event that Mr Bercow does lose his seat, he may qualify for a peerage; considering that he’s held the office for less than a year, however, this would raise many objections (whether these would be more vocal than in the case of his predecessor is anyone’s guess), and a Conservative Government might not be so keen to make him such an offer. If he is returned as MP but loses the Speakership, I find it more likely that he’d carry on in the Commons and take a peerage on his retirement from that House, whenever that would be, rather than resign and move to the Lords immediately (again, assuming that he would be made such an offer).

      End of speculation. Lord Norton may now take out the red pen and start correcting.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Dave H and DoW: I think it likely that John Bercow will be re-elected in Buckingham. I also think he will be re-elected as Speaker. Were he to be voted out of the Chair, it creates an unprecedented situation given that no Speaker has been denied re-election since Sir Charles Manners-Sutton in 1835: that is, before the strict neutrality of the office-holder not only during but subsequent to holding office – and being offered a peerage immediately upon ceasing to be Speaker – was firmly established. My assumption is that he would be offered a peerage and there would be a by-election in Buckingham. Having said that, sitting as an independent MP in the Commons may not be regarded as much different to being a cross-bencher in the Lords, but there would be difficulties remaining in the chamber over which you have presided and in which your successor is in charge of proceedings.

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        I suppose there are some greasy poles where, after reaching the top, one may only jump off. Your Lordship’s scenario would certainly help avoid some of the odder consequences of such an eventuality.

      • Croft says:

        Well you’re much closer to the greasy pole than we are LN but I’m sure you’ve read comments in the press that allowing a real vote on the speakership could be a bone that Cameron could offer to that section of his party opposed to JB. The risk and reward of such an option would be matched to the majority or lack of a majority that Cameron gets.

  10. The Duke of Waltham says:

    One question answered: the Right Honourable John Bercow, MP, was returned with 47.3% and a little over 12,500 votes ahead of the next candidate.

  11. c dimech says:

    Can anyone please tell me if MR Speaker , in case that there will be a vote , and some menber of the house will object to the result, would allow another votind to take place ?

    • Lord Norton says:

      c dimech: The position is governed by the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. At the start of a new Parliament, the Father of the House asks the person who was Speaker in the last Parliament and has been returned to the new House if he wishes to seek again the office of Speaker. If he replies in the affirmative, the motion is then put that he be the Speaker of the House. It is possible for MPs to vote against the motion. If it is forced to a division and the motion defeated, then a secret ballot for a new Speaker is held on the following day.

  12. Watson Chan says:

    We are working on the procedural arrangement for the vote of no confidence against Speaker. We shall be most grateful if you can kindly provide information on the said topic.

    From our research, we understand that Douglas Carswell MP tabled a motion expressing no confidence in Michael Martin as Speaker due to his handing of MP’s expenses issue on 19 May 2009. Later that day, Martin announced that he would resign from his position as Speaker of the House of Commons effective 21 June 2009. In this connection,

    1. does such confidence motion require notice and if so, what is the notice period and whether the notice period may be waived?
    2. is such confidence motion amendable and if so, who rules on the admissibility of the amendment(s)?
    3. in the case that the Speaker does not resign, will the Speaker preside over the debate and if he does not, then who presides?
    4. in the case that the Speaker does not resign, what is the voting arrangement of such confidence motion against the Speaker?
    5. in the case that the Speaker does not resign, what is the consequence if the motion is passed? Is it a constitutional convention for the Speaker to resign if the motion is passed?

    Thank you in advance for your consideration of this matter. I am looking forward to receiving your favourable reply.

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