Alex Stevenson's Rules of the game blog

Lansley lifts lid on Speaker's Commons stitch-up

Andrew Lansley is not the kind of man to be indiscreet lightly - which makes his revelations about Speaker John Bercow's behind-closed-doors conduct all the more shocking.

The former leader of the House was a member of the House of Commons Commission which recommended Australian Carol Mills should replace the retiring Robert Rogers. Now he has declared the Commission's process "ill-founded" - and pointed the finger at the Speaker for ruining it.

Mills' attempted appointment has been a disaster for Bercow. Nobody in Westminster knows much about the secretary of the Australian department of parliamentary services. Whatever her merits may be - and as MPs haven't even seen her CV, we don't know what these are - she most certainly doesn't know enough about the extraordinarily complex set of rules and traditions that make up the clerk of the Commons' life.

Over the summer MPs lined up against Bercow and his favoured candidate. By the time parliament returned from its long summer recess there were over 50 signatures on an early day motion demanding a change of heart. The Speaker had little choice but to stick on the brakes. So he resumed the Commons' sittings with a brief statement pausing the appointment process in a bid to secure consensus.

Now Bercow's credibility is being damaged even more. MPs used backbench business time yesterday to table a motion calling for a select committee to be established to sort the matter out. The usual suspects were out in force. So, too, was Lansley.

This was a man, let's not forget, who has been in frontbench politics for many, many years. He was leader of the House until being barged out of office by William Hague in this year's reshuffle. Lansley is a politician who, as he's demonstrated on Thursday mornings, is extremely capable of maintaining the party line.

All of which made his revelations, breaking the conventions of privacy which dominate the atmosphere in the Commons, so significant. Lansley has revealed that Bercow attempted to change the particulars of the job description, in an apparent bid to pave the way for his preferred candidate. In 2011, when Rogers was appointed, it was made clear the clerk should have "detailed knowledge of the procedures and practices of this House". Lansley explained:

"Mr Speaker sought to replace 'detailed knowledge' with 'awareness'. By way of compromise, the word 'detailed' was left out. But the selection panel was not therefore asked to subject candidates to the same test as in 2011. The process for appointment was, therefore, ill-founded, and any internal candidate with the procedural and practical knowledge but less opportunity to be a chief executive of a large organisation was at a disadvantage."

It's not enough, in Lansley's view, for the process to be paused. He wants it scrapped completely. This is a damning indictment of the Speaker, a man who Lansley was obliged to work closely with throughout his time leading the Commons.

"Andrew Lansley's revelation makes clear that there are still significant questions to be asked," says Jesse Norman, the Conservative backbencher who led yesterday's debate. These questions, in his view, are "not merely about the qualifications of Ms Carol Mills, but also about the process by which she was selected".

He is right. There is the bald fact of Bercow attempted to change the job description. And then there is the way in which the panel came to agreement. The Speaker has repeatedly talked of the consensus with which his panel operated. But it is now clear, from Lansley's revelations, that the panel was not unanimous in its recommendation of Carol Mills.

Another of its members, the shadow leader of the House Angela Eagle, appeared keen in yesterday's debate to muddy the waters on exactly this point. David Heath, the Liberal Democrat MP and former deputy leader of the Commons, quizzed her as he sought to "understand the precise process".

Heath asked: "Did the panel agree before the interview process the job description it judged against, or was that presented as a fait accompli?"

Eagle replied: "My memory is that we agreed it. It is important that I do not go into too much detail on the floor of the House, and essentially in public, about what happened in a process that resulted in agreement. As I have said, I am happy that the process was open and fair, and that it came to a conclusion by consensus."

A 'consensus' with which Lansley, then the leader of the Commons, disagreed vehemently does not sound like much of a consensus at all.

'Westminster': The toxic word that could help Salmond to victory

New polling out today reveals an old truth: that voters don't like politicians much. But these numbers draw attention to a more pressing problem. Persuading the Scottish to vote 'no' next week isn't much helped by the way Westminster politicians do business.

Populus talked to 2,040 Brits this time last month for the Institute for Government, and the results aren't good. It found the public generally don't believe the parties keep their manifesto promises. Instead they prioritise getting re-elected, scoring political points and making big announcements. Voters would rather they work on fulfilling election promises, working to get taxpayers the best value for money and taking decisions in the country's long-term interest.

None of this is new. That doesn't make it irrelevant to the crisis now engulfing the Better Together campaign.

The anti-politics vote which propelled Ukip to an unprecedented victory in this year's European elections could play a decisive role north of the border next Thursday, too. It fits in with the nationalists' rhetoric about Scottish values being different from those of the elites of far-away Westminster.

"Today what we have got is an example of Team Scotland against Team Westminster," Alex Salmond declared this morning.

"The breadth and reach of the 'Yes' campaign is there for all to see - it is not about the Scottish National Party, the Green Party or political parties. It goes right through the whole sector of Scottish society.

"What we are seeing today on the other side is Team Westminster jetting up to Scotland for the day because they are panicking in the campaign."

David Cameron is often talked about as the most damaging of the three leaders. His old Etonian background and downright Toryness do not exactly make him assets in this campaign. But Nick Clegg's record of inconsistency might make him a decent alternative candidate.

The Liberal Democrats have not had a smooth ride in power. Their tuition fees error - surely the broken promise of the last general election - is not going to help Scottish voters' views of Westminster politics. Coalition, far from empowering the electorate, seems to have deepened their suspicions that they don't really have a say in who runs the country.

It's a quirk of history that this referendum is taking place at a time when we have a coalition running the Commons and a party with an overall majority in Holyrood. Both are deviations from the norm. And both undermine the unionist cause.

Salmond's anti-Westminster rhetoric is actually a bit of a smokescreen. Get rid of these pesky politicians, he is saying - while conveniently glossing over the fact independence would only replace one lot of elected representatives with another. As the Labour party's list of 100 SNP broken promises showed in 2011, the SNP aren't immune to criticism either.

But in the remaining days of this campaign, that doesn't matter much. "In the league table of people not to send to Scotland," one disgruntled (but enlightened) Liberal Democrat MP said after this afternoon's PMQs, "you'd put Lady Thatcher first, David Cameron second, Nick Clegg third - and Ed Miliband not far behind them". The political leaders, by grouping themselves together in this theatrical move, are playing into the nationalists' hands.

Paul McCartney's 'no' endorsement: Are the terrible puns worth it?

Paul McCartney knows a thing or two about messy breakups. This weekend we've learned he doesn't want Scotland to divorce the rest of the UK in next month's independence referendum.

The ex-Beatle has joined scores of other people who have nothing whatsoever to do with politics in signing a letter making clear they want Scotland to vote 'no' on September 18th.

This is being treated as a big deal. If Scottish voters had not already been persuaded by the views of Mick Jagger, Tom Daley, Patrick Stewart, Davina McCall, Bruce Forsyth, Sara Cox, Dame Vera Lynn, Michael Parkinson, Alan Titchmarsh and Daley Thompson, surely they will be won over now Macca has added his name to the list.

One of the organisers of the letter, the TV historian Dan Snow, offered quotes accompanying Macca's endorsement with the reverential solemnity of a military officer bringing news of a great victory.

"We are absolutely delighted to be able to have Sir Paul's support for Let's Stay Together," he said, "as he is not only a national treasure but somebody who loves Scotland for what it is: a beautiful and inspiring country, and one that we are proud to count as part of the United Kingdom."

Snow points out that McCartney actually likes going to Scotland. He bought a farm near Campbeltown in 1966 and was able to slink away there during the Beatles' break-up.

From the baffling mediocrity of his first solo album, McCartney, to the jaw-clenchingly anodyne 1977 number one hit Mull Of Kintyre, Macca has often allowed the beauty and solace provided by Scotland's landscape inspire his songs.

Now McCartney has offered online 'no' supporters the chance to respond to the mockery inflicted on them in last week's #PatronisingBTLady by offering some jibes of their own.

The puns have been truly appalling.

Scottish Labour MP Anne McGuire took things too far:

"We are glad to have the Help! of Sir Paul McCartney. It is hardly surprising that Sir Paul wants us to Come Together. Maybe rather than trying to take us all on a Magical Mystery Tour Alex Salmond should just Let it Be."

And then there is this. The Scottish independence referendum is rather serious, isn't it? There's political arguments to be had. Or you could just put Beatles wigs on.

All this is, surely, too much to bear. And yet McCartney is one of the biggest celebrity endorsements yet. With the latest polls putting all the momentum firmly with the Yes Scotland campaign, perhaps Macca's high-profile intervention really will rescue the union…

Latest entries