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Tributes to the Speaker

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:00 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green 1:00 pm, 31st October 2019

First, I want to apologise for not having been here at the beginning of these tributes, Mr Speaker. I had to engage in a podcast with the Father of the House. It was a joint podcast. I say that, but he took up at least 90% of it, so it was joint in the sense that it is joint whenever you sit to hear him and you ask him to speak briefly and he does exactly that!

At the outset, I also want to say a farewell to you, Mr Speaker. We have known each other for a significant amount of time. I believe you once referred to me as a “sea green incorruptible”. You may or may not recall that. I am not sure to this day quite what you meant by it, but I had been rebelling against the Government then for some time and I fancy that you thought that was a good thing. It was on the back of that that when I became leader I employed you in the shadow Cabinet, as shadow Chief Secretary. It was not altogether a happy period. I recall being approached by one particular colleague of ours, who will remain nameless but who upbraided me in the Lobby, saying “It is fantastic that you have got somebody who is really campaigning on the rights for gay people and out there speaking on all these subjects. I was thinking, “Oh, very good, thank you.” He then said, “Do you think we could have a shadow Chief Secretary when you next get to the appointments for the shadow Cabinet?” I think he was not altogether enamoured of your journey, but it was certainly a journey, one that you have taken personal ownership of. You have been part of changes that have come about, all of which have been overdue. I fancy that your legacy in this matter will also therefore be recorded by everybody, notwithstanding your period in the Chair.

On that note, I wish briefly to deal with the idea of legacy. I recall a quote from “Julius Caesar”:

“The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones”.

I wish to reverse that process and simply say that there is much that you have done in this House that will stand the test of time and will return this House, in a way, to where it probably was many, many decades before, before it became too subjected to the concept of the overarching power of the Executive. I was a little tongue in cheek there. When I was, unexpectedly, in the Cabinet for six years, I regularly used to curse you in the mornings at about 9 o’clock when I heard that you were about to grant an urgent question—I think such questions came at noon—and I had to give you some reason why we should not have the UQ. Almost invariably I was told by your office that you had read what I had put but not required that it was the case and had granted the UQ. During that period, I do not think any Minister would not have been frustrated, annoyed and angry. However, having returned to the Back Benches, I have to congratulate you on reinvigorating the UQ, turning it from being an unusual event to being a very standard one, and I hope I have taken advantage of that. Of course the Government do not like that. When one is in government, surrounded by all the decisions one has to take and things one has to do, coming back to the House and being forced to answer questions is a nuisance, but it is a nuisance that really does matter.

I recall being frustrated as a junior Back Bencher on many occasions because I could not get in on a question and I thought that I had been pushed to one side, that everybody senior had got in and that the usual rules had applied. Any Member coming in here now will not have any knowledge of how it was before and they will just be used to standing and getting called. I often say to such Members, “It was very different in the old days. You might stand for three separate questions not related to each other and still not get called. Eventually you would approach the Chair and the Chair would say, ‘Next time we will call you. And you would then argue, ‘Well, I may not have an interest in the next question” but you would still have to come in and stand. Banishing that and getting rid of that process will stand as an important legacy of yours, because it allows non-Privy Counsellors to get their word in. I have one word of slight advice: my general rule is that in this place after about an hour there is absolutely nothing that anybody is going to get up to say that has not already been said at least three or four times. You have been incredibly tolerant that even on the fifth time it is worth hearing and sometimes quite important.

In that regard, your use of this place and your reforms to this place were overdue. I also remind colleagues that you came in at a difficult time; this House was in shame. The expenses scandal was all that people in the country saw and thought of us in this place. They thought all of us were corrupt and involved only for our own sakes, which is completely untrue but was overarchingly the view. As you know, Mr Speaker, people come here because they genuinely believe that they want to do good and to try to improve the quality of life for their constituents and for citizens around the country. To some degree, we are still suffering from that view. We needed the reforms such as opening this place up, letting younger people come into here, using the education service and expanding that process, and giving colleagues the power to bring Governments to the Dispatch Box so that they could ask those questions and force Ministers, even in difficult moments, to answer the most difficult questions of the day. That is a set of vital reforms and I cannot see any future Speaker reversing them, nor should they, because they are absolutely structural.

We have not always agreed on everything, Mr Speaker, nor should we; I confess there have been times when I have been somewhat frustrated. However, as colleagues have said, this is not really about being frustrated about the decisions; it is about whether or not somebody is consistent in the process they engage in. The one thing you have been absolutely consistent in is your belief that Back Benchers have the right and should have the power to be heard, regardless of whether you agree with them or not, and of whether they sometimes say things that might be an abhorrence. You believe that they have the right, because they were elected to this place, to be heard here without fear or favour. Restoring that process will be your greatest legacy, so I wish you a good retirement—although I suspect it will not be retirement and you will have some other kind of career. Perhaps you will be speaking across the States, where I gather you are becoming quite a celebrity on the speaking circuit. Whatever else you do, I know you will bring to it longer speeches, with words that nobody has ever understood or heard before. Notwithstanding that, people will be fascinated by them, as I have always been by your approach at the Chair. So I wish you the very best of fortune, and I consider it in a way a privilege to have been in this House when these reforms have taken place, and you were the architect of them. Thank you.