In Depth

Tories aim to 'bury' Speaker thanks to Hague's plotting

Not one but two Machiavellian plots uncovered: Miliband was led into the VAT trap, it transpires

The Mole

EDITOR'S UPDATE at 18.30, Thursday: The Speaker survived the government's "grubby plot" against him when 23 Tory MPs and ten Lib Dems joined Labour in voting down the motion by 228 to 202 votes. 

Two Machiavellian plots involving senior Tory ministers have been uncovered at the Commons in the last hours before MPs go to their constituencies to prepare for the election.

Plot Number One involved an elaborate subterfuge to sucker Ed Miliband into the trap of challenging David Cameron over VAT at the last session of Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday.

Chancellor George Osborne refused FIVE times to rule out a VAT rise when he went to the Treasury Select Committee earlier this week, merely insisting “we don’t need to increase VAT”. 

Miliband walked into the trap yesterday by calling on Cameron to give the House a straight answer and rule out a VAT rise in the next Parliament - and Cameron duly did so, leaving the Labour leader wrong-footed.

But Business Minister Matt Hancock blurted out on BBC Newsnight last night that the decision to rule out a rise in VAT had already been taken before Osborne appeared before the Treasury Select Committee

"There was obviously a decision not to announce a new policy in that forum but instead to announce it at Prime Minister’s Questions,” said Hancock.

That has left Labour members of the Treasury committee spluttering with fury at the underhand, cheap, dastardly, rotten trick pulled by the Tories. 

John Mann, a Labour member of the committee, is accusing Osborne of misleading the committee and treating Parliament with contempt. "What Hancock let slip is Osborne misled Treasury Committee purely to set up political ambush. Very major democracy issue," he tweeted. 

On Radio 4’s Today programme, Mann said that if any official - say, the Governor of the Bank of England – had tried such a thing, they would have to resign.

But with Parliament rising today for the election, it will all be water under the bridge by the time the committee meets again, sometime after 7 May. Right now, it’s Miliband who has egg on his face.

Plot Number Two involves a last-minute manoeuvre by the Tories to make it easier to sack the hated Speaker, John Bercow, as their first act in the new Parliament, if they can muster the numbers.

Tory backbenchers have become increasingly hostile to Bercow, a former right-wing Tory MP who, they claim, has moved so far to the left he’s almost beyond Labour now. Tory MPs privately accuse him of bias towards Labour, and are incandescent over the way he stops them heckling shadow Cabinet ministers.

Under the current rules, the Speaker has to be elected at the start of each Parliament in an open ballot, which means the Speaker can see who votes against him. Tory MPs have privately complained that this makes it difficult for them to vote against Bercow.

Tory backbenchers hatched a plot to change the rules to allow them to vote on the re-election of the Speaker in May by secret ballot. That seemed to be getting nowhere. But last night William Hague, Leader of the House, backed the backbenchers in their plot, and tabled a surprise government motion to make the election of the Speaker by secret ballot. 

Hague, in his last act before retiring as an MP to become a full-time writer, has sprung a vote on Parliament this morning at around 11 am. The Government chief whip Michael Gove with Lib Dem support has slapped a three-line whip on Tory MPs to turn up for the vote. Numbers should be high, because Tory MPs have been asked to attend a pep talk beforehand from Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby. 

But Labour are crying “foul” because, unaware of the vote, many have already left town for their constituencies. They don’t think they can get enough of them back in time to defeat the Tory-Lib Dem plan.

Shadow Leader of the House Angela Eagle said: “This is a grubby last-minute plot in the dying hours of this Parliament to try and change the procedures of the House. The Tories are trying to play politics with the Speakership because they know they won’t win a majority at the next election, and the Lib Dems appear to have signed up to it.”

One Conservative MP told the Daily Telegraph it was “pay-back time” and “William Hague’s going-away present” for Tory MPs. 

The anonymous MP said he was going to miss the interment of King Richard III to return to the Commons “hopefully to bury the Speaker”.

Bercow still has some friends on the Tory benches. One of them, Julian Lewis, attacked the move as “the politics of the stab in the back”. He added: “This is an absolute ambush... more suited to student politics than the chamber of the House of Commons.”

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