Deputy Speaker's corner

Wrapping my anorak of office tightly about me, I've been talking to the rival candidates for the office of Deputy Speaker of the Commons.

The election to be held next Wednesday is a rather bizarre affair; all MPs can vote, but only MPs from the government side* can stand, because, by convention, half of the Speaker's four strong team (the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and the two Deputy Deputy Speakers) are from the government side and half from the opposition side - and this election is to replace the Conservative, Nigel Evans.

And with at least six Conservative MPs in the running (David Amess, Henry Bellingham, Brian Binley, Simon Burns, Nadine Dorries, Eleanor Laing and Gary Streeter - no Lib Dem joined the race, on the grounds that they wouldn't have a hope…) each with a contingent of Conservative supporters, the result will be determined by the candidates ability to attract Labour votes.

Which is why Labour MPs have suddenly discovered they have a lot of unsuspected new best friends on the Conservative benches. It's quite fun to sit in Portcullis House and watch the candidates working the line at the coffee bar, or striking up conversations at the cafeteria tables…

The campaigning lines are fun.

Several candidates are playing on the near-universal loathing of the MPs' expenses body, IPSA, with variously worded promises to be tough on IPSA and tough on the causes of IPSA, which will be interesting, since they have no real power over it.

There are carefully-worded promises of "fairness to all sides," which would once have gone without saying, and which could be read as a delicately coded criticism of Speaker Bercow.

Similarly there are some references to being able to work as a team, which, again, can be read as coded references to the well-known antagonism between former minister, and now candidate, Simon Burns, who once referred to the Speaker as a "sanctimonious dwarf."

The thought of putting Burns in harness with Bercow tickles many a Tory.

Game for a laugh?

And the giggle factor behind his candidacy looks like a potent asset.

But people are also noticing that his election as deputy would leave him well-positioned to mount a challenge to take over the top job, when the House is invited to re-elect its sitting Speaker after the 2015 election, which is not such a plus point with Labour MPs.

Mr Burns has become a bit of a target, attracting accusations of being "the Downing Street candidate," a potentially deadly slur.

"I'm not the candidate who was in the government five days ago," murmurs Eleanor Laing.

To reach out to those crucial Labour votes some candidates stress their humble backbench credentials or their record of independence and even occasional rebellion; Nadine Dorries goes so far as to suggest Labour MPs may support her because of her famous remark that Mssrs Cameron and Osborne were "two posh boys who didn't know the price of a pint of milk."

She even suggests that Labour MPs who reject her anti-abortion stance might vote to put her in the chair, to force her into a neutral role where she could not continue her campaign.

Several candidates have organisers on the Labour side who're making these and other points to bemused colleagues who can barely distinguish between the Tory rivals.

One advantage for Conservative Brian Binley is that he has already promised to retire at the next election - which means his election would not permanently foreclose the ambitions of his rivals.

Which makes him the natural repository for second-preference votes - his letter to colleagues makes a direct pitch for them.

So if he places reasonably well to start with, he might overtake the initial front-runners, as the weakest candidates drop out and the second preferences are factored in…

Why does all this matter?

Beyond a few generic promises of fairness and dignity, it's hard for the candidates to offer anything particularly distinctive on their approach to the job; the Speaker calls the shots on almost all major decisions.

But the deputies will be natural contenders for the chair when John Bercow calls it a day.

There is nothing automatic about their succession, but they will be well positioned.

And Mr Bercow's reforming instincts (he'll be unveiling more proposals for change in a lecture in November) have been crucial in nurturing the more open House of Commons which has emerged since the last election.

Few appreciate quite how quickly the Commons might default back to its factory settings if some genial establishment figure replaced him.

Whether you agree or disagree with the votes, this more open Commons has taken some highly significant decisions which might never have been permitted it, in previous eras.

It stopped British involvement in an attack on Syria and allowed Eurosceptics to press for an EU referendum, and did much more besides.

So MPs should have a strong interest in choice of even potential successors to the current Speaker.

* To be absolutely precise, only MPs from the side of the House from which the current Speaker came, at the time of his election. IE the Opposition side in 2009.