On Tuesday 9 July the House of Commons will elect or re-elect a Speaker. The Speaker presides over the Commons, maintaining order, selecting MPs to speak in debates and ruling on Commons procedure.

This Insight looks at the procedure for selecting a Speaker at the beginning of a new Parliament.

Before electing the Speaker

Without a Speaker, the House of Commons cannot carry out any other business. This means that the first act of a newly elected Commons is to elect – or re-elect – one of its MPs to take the Speaker’s Chair. The rules governing this are not statutory (they are not set out in any legislation, unlike in the devolved legislatures) but are set out in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.

The process begins when Royal Commissioners (who open a new Parliament on the King’s behalf) direct the Commons to do so. As at a State Opening of Parliament, the Commons is summoned by Black Rod to the Bar of the House of Lords. Once assembled, the presiding Royal Commissioner (usually the Leader of the House of Lords) says:

it is His Majesty’s Pleasure that you, Members of the House of Commons, repair to the place where you are to sit, and there proceed to the choice of some proper person to be your Speaker, and that you present such person whom you shall so choose here [tomorrow] for His Majesty’s Royal Approbation.

The Commons and the Royal Commissioners then depart.

Re-election of a former Speaker

Back in the House of Commons, the Speaker’s Chair is temporarily taken by the MP “who has served for the longest period continuously as a Member of this House” and is not a minister (known as the Mother or Father of the House).

If the Speaker at dissolution is returned as an MP following a general election, the Mother or Father of the House asks whether they are willing to be chosen as Speaker again. The former Speaker answers this question by addressing MPs from the backbenches.

If the former Speaker does desire re-election, the Mother or Father of the House calls on one MP to move the motion that they should take the chair as Speaker-elect. A vote on this motion is taken in the usual way – verbally, by MPs shouting their support or opposition to the motion.

If this motion is carried, then the Speaker-elect takes the chair and at some point later that day or the next the Commons will return to the House of Lords to present its Speaker-elect for the Royal Approbation (see below).

Election of a new Speaker by ballot

If a division on this motion is defeated, then an election for a new Speaker begins on the next sitting day. Under Commons Standing Order No 1B the Mother or Father of the House presides and invites nominations.

Candidates must be nominated by at least 12 MPs (and not more than 15), of whom at least three must have been elected to the House for a different party from the candidate. Each MP may nominate no more than one candidate. Each candidate addresses MPs, and the tradition is that these speeches include self-deprecating remarks.

Once all the candidates have addressed the House, the first secret ballot takes place. MPs are handed a ballot paper on which they place an “X” next to the candidate of their choice. The Mother or Father of the House then announces the result of the first ballot in alphabetical order.

If no MP receives more than 50% of ballots cast, then the House proceeds to a second ballot. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, as are any candidates who received fewer than 5% of the votes cast. Any other candidates who wish to withdraw have 10 minutes in which to inform the chair. There are further rounds of voting until a candidate secures more than 50% of the ballots cast.

The Mother or Father of the House then puts the question that the successful candidate “do take the Chair of this House as Speaker”. After this question has been agreed in the usual way, the presiding MP invites the Speaker-elect to take the chair. By tradition, the successful candidate’s proposer and seconder “take the Member out of their place and conduct them to the Chair”. This is also known as “dragging”.

On being conducted (dragged) to the chair, the Speaker-elect stands on the upper step and expresses thanks for the honour bestowed. The Speaker-elect then takes their seat and the mace is laid upon the table. The mace is a symbol of royal authority, without which the Commons cannot operate.

The Speaker-elect is then congratulated by some leading MPs, puts the question for adjournment and, once the House adjourns, leaves the chamber with the Serjeant at Arms carrying the mace in their left hand.

Royal Approbation of the Speaker-elect

The day after an election or re-election (or sometimes on the same day), the Prime Minister “signifies” to the Commons that it should present its choice as Speaker in the House of Lords for the King’s Royal Approbation. The Speaker-elect then suspends the House and awaits Black Rod’s summons.

Once the Commons, preceded by its Speaker-elect, arrives at the Bar of the House of Lords, the Speaker-elect states that the choice of “His Majesty’s most faithful Commons” has “fallen” upon him or her and that they submit themselves for the King’s “gracious Approbation”. The presiding Royal Commissioner responds by saying that the King “does most readily approve and confirm you as their Speaker”.

The Speaker then addresses the Royal Commissioners again, stating that it his “duty” on behalf of the Commons to:

lay claim […] to all their ancient and undoubted rights and privileges, especially to freedom of speech in debate, to freedom from arrest, and to free access to His Majesty whenever occasion shall require, and that the most favourable construction shall be put upon all their proceedings.

In reply, the presiding Royal Commissioner says that the King “does most readily confirm all the rights and privileges which have ever been granted to or conferred upon the Commons by His Majesty or any of His Royal Predecessors”.

At this point, the Commons and the Royal Commissioners depart. On the return procession to the Commons, the mace (which had been left outside the Lords Chamber) is borne before the Speaker on the Serjeant at Arms’ right shoulder and then placed on the Table in the Chamber. This signifies that the Commons is now fully constituted.

Further reading:

About the author: Dr David Torrance is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in monarchy and the constitution.

Photo Credit: House of Commons Chambers Credit: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Related posts