Tory MPs help defeat Speaker motion
More than 20 Conservative MPs have voted against the Government and forced it into a Commons defeat on the eve of the election campaign over changing the procedure for re-electing the Speaker when Parliament returns.
Following a day of bitter wrangling and accusations of political chicanery, a motion moved by Commons Leader William Hague was defeated by 26 votes, 228 to 202.
Among the No votes were 23 Tories and 10 Liberal Democrats. The vote on House business was declared a free vote but the manoeuvrings to get the measure on to the order paper hours ahead of the formal end of the 2010 Parliament ensured the Government was blamed by backbenchers on both sides.
Had it passed, the motion would have likely meant John Bercow facing a secret ballot of MPs to retake his place in the Commons, widely considered a Conservative plot to unseat him.
Mr Bercow appeared emotional as he called the tellers to read out the result. The Labour benches cheered wildly before it was formally announced after news of the defeat emerged, slowing proceedings.
Applause broke out in the chamber as the result was read out by teller David Hamilton, before Labour MPs began shouting "resign" at the Tory front bench, where Mr Hague, Chief Whip Michael Gove and Deputy Commons Leader Tom Brake were sitting.
The Speaker had earlier told MPs "I'm not going anywhere" in a tense Parliamentary day, begun with the unexpected announcement of three urgent questions, one of them an acrimonious occasion on the change to the day's business. The additional sessions pushed the key debate and vote back by almost two hours.
News of the debate reached Mr Bercow at only 5.30pm last night and became public hours later.
Mr Hague defended the measure as "fair and democratic and thus completely justified" but saw a senior member of his own side almost brought to tears over the situation.
Charles Walker, the Broxbourne MP who chairs the Procedure Committee, told the House he had been "played as a fool" after attending Mr Hague's leaving drinks earlier in the week, spending time with Mr Hague, his special adviser, his Liberal Democrat deputy Mr Brake, and Mr Gove.
Mr Walker said: "I have been played as a fool and when I go home tonight I will look in the mirror and see an honourable fool looking back at me and I would much rather be an honourable fool in this and any other matter than a clever man."
The chaos in the Commons bore hallmarks of a similar debacle last year when Home Secretary Theresa May moved a motion she said was on the European Arrest Warrant but made no mention of the controversial EU measure.
Then, a series of unusual procedural manoeuvres culminated in Prime Minister David Cameron being forced to return early from the Lord Mayor's Banquet to vote while dressed in white tie.
Labour forced a symbolic vote on the issue a week later after the Government narrowly won on that occasion.
Today, shadow Commons leader Angela Eagle said Mr Hague had brought the Commons to an "appalling situation".
She accused the Government of a "cynical attempt to bring the speakership into play to use it as a bargaining chip in coalition negotiations".
Conservative MP Julian Lewis quoted Liberal Democrat Andrew George (St Ives), who was not able to attend the debate due to the death of his father.
Mr George's email said: "I feel very frustrated and annoyed by this. In addition I can't be there. My father died last night and as you might expect I have other priorities today that I cannot alter.
"Had I been able to attend, I would object in the strongest terms to the way this is being done. I don't mind a motion being brought forward in an open and honest manner, but not in this underhand way."
Liberal Democrat Duncan Hames (Chippenham) said imposing a secret ballot at re-election would be a motion of no confidence in a speaker at the start of a parliament.
Its unforeseen consequence could be to potentially "fatally wound" the speaker even if that speaker were to win such a vote, he said.
He added: "That, I think, is the gravest danger to members of this House, to have a weakened speaker, whoever that may be some time in the future."
Mr Bercow came under renewed Tory attack in the midst of the debate. Raising a point of order, Tory Jesse Norman asked why the Speaker had not called any more speeches in support of the motion.
Mr Bercow said it was the Government who had determined the time allocated for the debate.
Tory former minister Greg Barker sparked uproar in the Commons when he questioned Mr Bercow's suitability to chair the debate.
Raising a point of order, Mr Barker said: "Given the very sensitive nature of this discussion, have you taken advice as to whether or not you, sir, should be in the chair for this debate?"
Mr Bercow replied: "I have not found it necessary to seek advice on this matter. It is commonplace for the Speaker to be in the Speaker's chair.
"I'm genuinely sorry if that disquiets you but it has been normal practice to do at least the expected number of hours of the Speaker in the chair and frequently rather more so.
"I've not generally found that that's met with disapproval in the House."
Labour's Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) said Michael Dobbs, creator of House Of Cards and a Tory peer, would have been ashamed to have dreamt up such "grubby" antics for one of his novels.
Conservative backbencher Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) said Mr Hague's final act in the Parliament appeared on the surface to be "underhand".
He said he could understand strong arguments in favour of the motion but would oppose it due to the way the matter had been handled, describing it as an "ambush" and an apparent attempt to punish Mr Bercow.
Veteran Tory Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) appealed for calm and suggested Parliament consider the issue on a consensual basis once the Speaker had announced his retirement.
He said: "Some people here may like the Speaker or not like the Speaker. There may be a case for a secret ballot or not.
"But, so we are not accused of this being about a particular individual, should we not do this on a consensual basis when the Speaker has announced his retirement, we then come to an agreement?
"There is no question then of it being about the present Speaker."
Downing Street said Mr Cameron still had "full confidence" in Chief Whip Mr Gove despite the defeat.
A Number 10 spokeswoman declined to say whether Mr Cameron personally thought the Speaker was doing a good job, telling reporters: " That's a view for MPs across the House to express."
Asked if the Prime Minister was disappointed by the result, a Number 10 spokeswoman said: "It was for the House to decide, and they have expressed their view."
Pressed on whether Mr Cameron still had full confidence in Mr Gove, the spokeswoman replied: "Yes."