The likely runners and riders to be next Lord Speaker
An interesting tussle is taking shape in the Upper House to succeed Lady Hayman, the first-ever Lord Speaker, who's standing down in July, after five years on the Woolsack.
The Lord Speakership was created by Tony Blair as part of a package to replace the ancient office of Lord Chancellor, which combined in a single individual the roles of head of the judiciary, speaker of the Lords and senior cabinet minister. It was thought this blurred a proper separation of constitutional powers and so we now have a Lord Chief Justice, a Justice Secretary and a Lord Speaker.
But presiding over the Lords is a very peculiar business. The Lord Speaker is not forever bellowing "Order! Order!"
In fact the Lord Speaker never bellows at all, and hardly ever says anything beyond a few formal incantations around the taking of votes.
The Lords pride themselves on their tradition of self-regulation, which means they instinctively take their proper turns to speak, rather than being called on by the Chair, and violations of the rules are dealt with by a genteel chorus of disapproval from other peers, rather than by a ruling handed down. Where two peers try to speak and neither give way, the decision on which should continue is made by a Government minister, from the front bench, a tradition many peers do find a bit bizarre. (one describes it as a farcical free for all).
There's a report by a "Leader's Group" - a high powered committee of senior peers - recommending that the Lord Speaker should have some limited power to guide proceedings during question time and ministerial statements. On a more subtle level, self regulation means that the House disciplines itself to give due and proper consideration of Government bills by agreement, and without the imposition of Commons horrors like guillotines and simply failing to debate some sections of bills at all.
One reason we might be hearing more of that report is that the Leader's Group was chaired by one of the leading candidates to replace Lady Hayman, the Conservative Lord Goodlad - a former Chief Whip in the Commons. So is he standing on the basis that he'd like to implement his recommendations? Apparently not.
He says simply that any rule changes are "a matter for the House". The careful phrasing gives a taste of just how controversial it is in the Lords to give even a sliver of power over the conduct of the House to the Lord Speaker - because so many peers fear it would lead to the ultimate demise of their cherished self-regulation, and the creeping imposition of Commons-style control of proceedings by the Government.
One of Lord Goodlad's most serious rivals, the former Cabinet Minister Lord Hunt of Wirrall, seemed to leave the door open to the House voting more power to the Lord Speaker, but shudders fastidiously at the thought of "descending to the level of the other House, where the Speaker has constantly to call Order, Order!"
His USP is his reputation as a high-class fixer who, with the mandate of the whole House behind him, could help broker a compromise in what could prove to be a fraught endgame to the current efforts at Lords reform. That seems to be code for negotiating transitional arrangements which would mean the current Peers were not simply turned out onto the streets and replaced by elected senators or whatever.
A lot of the sting could be taken out of the issue if they were allowed to remain until they wanted to leave, or received their writ of summons to the celestial senate. Lord Hunt, who both helped create, and later abolish, the Poll Tax, is recognised as having the sinuous political skills needed to cut a deal.
Others may question whether a Lord Speaker should be at the table for such talks, but there's certainly a view around, particularly among the reformers, that it would help.
Another serious contender who can lay claim to being a serious practitioner of the art of compromise is the Convener of the Crossbench Peers, Lady D'Souza. She, as readers of this blog may recall, was a key figure in ending the deadlock in the Lords over the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill, earlier this year. (Labour Peers, you'll remember, threatened to filibuster the Bill into the ground and deny Nick Clegg his AV referendum in May - perhaps he now wishes they had succeeded…) She is a respected figure and a staunch defender of self-regulation. And her candidacy could well appeal to those who don't want a convention to emerge of a Commons-style Buggins' Turn, in which the main parties take turns to provide a Lord Speaker.
There are other contenders, too. Labour's Lord Desai, an economist of international stature, would very much like the job, but may have to contend with a view among his colleagues that "it's the Tories' turn". The Liberal Democrat Lord Redesdale is planning to run on a promise of doing as little as possible, to avoid any erosion of self-regulation. He confidently predicts he will get no votes at all. And since the deadline for nomination is June 23, there is plenty of time for further contenders to emerge.
What is clear is that this will not be a straight party-tribal vote. All the candidates flourish the support of grandees from outside their own tribe, and the ultimate winner will need to appeal across parties. What is incalculable is the voting preferences of the legion of new peers inducted since the last election. They will, of course, be less steeped in the traditions of Their Lordships' House - and that may mean that its immemorial conventions are less of an influence on their choice. I'd love to be a fly on the wall when the campaigning starts.