Delaying tactics

Time and again as James Wharton's EU Referendum Bill inched through the Commons, the Speaker would get up during some protracted division (Commons-speak for vote) and say "Will the Serjeant at Arms investigate the delay in the No Lobby."

Slow motion voting became something of an art form on the three Friday sittings where the Bill went through its report stage.

But what exactly happens?

Well on one occasion I'm told, the deputy Serjeant (for some reason this is how the Commons spells it) went to investigate delays and found a Labour MP standing there with one shoe on and one shoe off, theatrically shaking his footwear, in search of a stone.

Chivvied along, he laboriously re-laced his brogues and then he had to re-shelve the bound copy of Hansard he'd been perusing form the bookshelves which line the lobbies, and, oh dear, he couldn't spot the right place…

By such means a division process which normally takes a little more than ten minutes dragged on for more like 20.

Still it is as nothing to the tactics which, as Commons legend relates, were once employed by Dennis Skinner and the late Bob Cryer, who once took down the bound copies of Hansard from the shelves and built a mini-barricade.


There were loud hosannas a few months back, when the Commons Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee seemed to have won its long campaign for a statutory code of practice to regulate the way big pub companies treated their tenants.

The committee produced at least four reports calling for statutory intervention and arguing that voluntary codes had failed to tackle abuses within the industry, and being badgered through debates and questions the Business Secretary Vince Cable appeared to concede their case - but then there was silence.

I'm told that, behind the scenes the government is balking at the kind of code the Select Committee wants - so Committee Chair Adrian Bailey and his members may have to re-open a battle they thought they'd won.


Here's an interesting conundrum; how many pay-offs to departing ministers can taxpayers stomach?

Ministers who're reshuffled out of office, or who lose their jobs because a government loses an election get severance pay.

But in this era of coalition politics there's a new possibility.

Suppose, in the run-up to the next election, one party leaves the government - or is pushed?

All its ministers would be entitled to severance pay (back in January, departing Energy Secretary Chris Huhne got £17,207, when he stood down to face trial).

Suppose, a few months later, that the resulting minority government then lost the election - all its ministers, including the ones who'd only just come in, would also be entitled to a payment.

Behind the scenes, influential voices are already murmuring that this won't look good....

Speaking of departures at election time, there's a quiet exodus from senior jobs on the committee corridor.

Already James Arbuthnot (Defence), Richard Ottaway (Foreign Affairs) Alan Beith (Justice, Malcolm Burce (International Development) and Joan Walley (Environmental Audit) have announced that they're standing down. Tim Yeo (Energy and Climate Change) may or may not be in the departure lounge as he fights deselection in his Suffolk seat) and, to put it delicately, several other committee chairs are not exactly in the first blush of youth.

And the days when these posts were agreeable sinecures for good old boys are long gone; Committee Chairs get a useful salary bump and more important, can cut quite a dash in politics.

Look at Margaret Hodge's high-profile use of the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, at Keith Vaz's influence in Home Affairs or Andrew Tyrie's powerful interventions on banking legislation from the chairs of the Treasury Committee and the Parliamentary Banking Commission.

For those who don't see themselves becoming minsters, either because they don't fancy the role or because their face doesn't fit with their party leadership, leading a select committee carries considerable allure.

Of course the distribution of select committee chairs between the parties will be determined by the make-up of the new 2015 House of Commons, so it's a little previous for MPs who fancy any of these jobs to go on manoeuvres, but look out for a little delicate pre-positioning, and maybe for some demonstration of political will.

"What we really want is people who've still got real fire in their belly," one committee corridor veteran told me...

Amendments spat

The ongoing spat between the Leader of the Commons, Andrew Lansley and Mr Speaker, about how many amendments can be called during the Queen's Speech.

Some credulous souls are buying briefing that this is a devilish wrecking tactic, allowing the Speaker to wreck the government's legislative programme by calling endless amendments - quite how this would be possible in a five-day government scheduled debate is not explained.

The leader had put down an amendment designed to put Mr Speaker back in his box after he allowed four amendments in the debate in May, by limiting him to the three that had become normal in recent years.

But anyway, the latest list of names supporting the Procedure Committee's amendment leaving the whole thing to the discretion of the Chair (which could mean four amendments or more) has now been signed by some heavyweight names - notably Graham Brady, chair of the Conservatives backbench 1922 Committee and Dave Watts, chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

It's a brave Leader who takes on both on a matter of House rules.

Keeping time

Meanwhile Monday night's parallel Commons spat over the standing orders around the operation of backbench debates may have seemed a little obscure, but different visions of how the small reservation of debating time controlled by MPs themselves should be run.

Procedure Select Committee Chair, Charles Walker, wanted to guarantee that where a Commons session was longer than usual (like the bumper 2010-12 session) the Backbench Business Committee got a pro-rata share of debating time...

And he also wanted to allow the Backbench Business Committee to timetable its debates. On both counts he was opposed by BBCOM Chair Natascha Engel; she noted that the committee had been given extra days during 2010-12 without the need for any rule to guarantee it.

Ms Engel was worried that any new rule might work in reverse, with backbench time cut down in shorter parliamentary sessions, and she opposed timetabling debates laid on by her committee, on the grounds that there had seldom been any problem and MPs had shown they were able to organise their debates without the blunt instrument of time-limiting them.

All pretty minor stuff, you might have thought, but both sides organised furiously.

A government whip on these issues was dropped, seemingly on tactical grounds.

Mr Walker even admitted his attempt to galvanise support in the tea room had failed, and attempted to pull his motion altogether.

But he wasn't allowed to do so, and the issues were pushed to a vote..... It may all seem pretty trivial but it revealed some fault-lines amongst Commons reformers who argue for more power for parliament.

It's not impossible to imagine Ms Engel and Mr Walker as rivals for the succession after Speaker Bercow departs.

Is this a foretaste of differences in their approach to the running of the House?