Monday, 17 May 2010

New faces in new places

For boring people like me, who enjoy watching Parliament, tomorrow will be a fun day. At 2.15pm tomorrow, for the first time since the election, MPs will assemble in the chamber of the House of Commons.

The exciting thing will be to see where everyone sits on those famous green benches. On the government front bench will be the new Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, as well as other members of the new government.

On the opposite side of the chamber, for the first time in 13 years, Labour MPs will sit on the official opposition's benches. As acting leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harman will sit facing David Cameron and beside her will be the former members of the Labour government including David and Ed Miliband (it will be interesting to see if the two siblings and rivals for the Labour leadership sit next to each other and, if they do, what they might say to each other).

Spread throughout the chamber will be over 200 new faces after the biggest influx of new MPs in 65 years. One old face will be the new Father of the House (if 'new' is the right word), Sir Peter Tapsell, who has served in the Commons longer than any other member. The former Father of the House, who retired from politics at the election, was Labour MP Alan Williams, a slender and mild mannered Welshman who'd been the MP for Swansea West since 1964. Williams' successor as Father is a rotund Conservative MP, noted for wearing morning suits and expressing forthright views which are often at odds with those of David Cameron's Conservative party.

When you ask people to imagine a stereotypical 'Tory', they think of Sir Peter Tapsell. Even people who have never heard of Sir Peter Tapsell (indeed people who have never seen Sir Peter Tapsell) think of him when they imagine a Conservative MP. To the great loss of parliament, I fear the type of parliamentarian which Sir Peter embodies is becoming less and less common in the Commons.

The Father of the House only has one official job. Parliament can't start passing new laws until the State Opening next Tuesday, but there are still a few things which need to be done before then. The first and only job of the first day back is to elect the Speaker, the process of which is presided over by the Father of the House who sits in the left seat in front of the Speaker's (temporarily) empty chair.

John Bercow, the incumbent Speaker, is seeking re-election unopposed, so there probably won't be too much excitement. I say 'probably' because, for various reasons, John Bercow is not liked by several Conservative MPs.

If all goes to plan, after John Bercow makes a short speech from the backbenches, the Father of the House will say the words:
The question is that Mr. John Bercow do take the Chair of this House as Speaker. As many as are of that opinion say Aye [at which point most MPs should shout "Aye"] of the contrary No [at which point there should be silence].

If there is indeed silence after the last part of those words, John Bercow will be declared Speaker and ceremonially dragged to the Speaker's chair. If, however, even a few MPs shout "No", then there will be a formal vote and possibly a full Speaker election.

It's very unlikely that this will happen though. When Michael Martin resigned last year, it was the first time a Speaker had been forced from office since 1695. Of course John Bercow could be wondering if coups against the Speaker are like buses – you wait 300 years for one and two come along within twelve months of each other.

For the rest of the week members will each take the oath of allegiance to the Queen. The oath is almost identical to the one taken by naturalised British citizens, with one exception; new British citizens must also pledge to uphold the UK's democratic values, something which isn't required of the MPs. I wonder why.

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