What’s up with Lindsay Hoyle? On Monday, the Speaker opened the afternoon session of parliament with a statement about the puerile gossip surrounding Angela Rayner. He called the story in the Mail on Sunday, ‘misogynistic’ and ‘offensive to women in parliament.’ Such tasteless yarns, he went on, ‘can only deter women who might be considering standing for election – to the detriment of us all.’ His remedy was to call two meetings. First, a tete-a-tete with Rayner herself. Secondly, a conference with the Mail on Sunday editor and the chair of the press lobby.
Several questions arise. The less urgent issue is why he wished to meet Rayner personally? She strikes very few people as the type who needs a mug of tea and a cosy chat with a sympathetic older gentleman to soothe her nerves. The deputy leader of the Labour party can look after herself. Hoyle appears to have singled her out because she’s a woman and therefore in need of his sage advice and steadying hand. Plenty of male MPs get abused every day without being invited to the Wellness Centre in Speaker’s House for a therapy session on beanbags, joss sticks scenting the air and wind-chimes tinkling in the breeze. Hoyle is nobody’s spiritual guardian. And Rayner would be justified in feeling patronised.
His statement that misogyny stops women from taking part in politics sounds like a groundless exaggeration. If he were correct, scores of mortified female MPs would have resigned their seats yesterday to make way for tough, square-jawed males who are better equipped for the bear-pit of parliament than their feeble, wilting sisters. Hoyle’s thinking is out of date.
The summons to meet senior journalists is more problematic because its status is unclear. Is it an official proceeding of parliament or just a spot of grandstanding by a Speaker who likes to flex his muscles? He chose to announce this one-man panel of enquiry from the Chair, and this established a degree of interest in its form and its outcome. How will it be minuted or recorded? Is it a disciplinary procedure and what sanctions is he likely to threaten or impose? Will other journalists be present? And what happens if someone uses sneaky thigh movements to put the Speaker off his stride?
Hoyle appears to be setting himself up as an alternative power base and claiming the rights of a press regulator. It’s hard to say with what authority he acts and how he can be restrained if he over-reaches himself. But anyone who has watched his career as Speaker will not be surprised.
When he took the job he was a breath of fresh air after the garrulous, prickly John Bercow whose Napoleonic ego was matched by his Napoleonic stature. Hoyle seemed modest, amusing and succinct. He understood his role perfectly. To enable and to facilitate. To calm storms and to remove obstacles. To act as midwife to a debate whose quality is determined by the calibre of the orators, not by the judgments of the chairman.
That didn’t last long. He started to jump up and down during PMQs and to call repeatedly for hush. His constant interruptions ruined the flow of whichever MP was speaking. He developed a taste for picking fights with backbenchers and threatening to eject them. But he was reluctant to follow through on these promises and he began to lose authority. Rowdy MPs found him easy to taunt. If PMQs gets noisy, Hoyle makes it noisier.
He clearly dislikes the Prime Minister and he shuts him up if he feels that Boris is evading a question. No need. Everyone can see for themselves when the greased piglet is using dodge-and-weave tactics. The Speaker’s task is not to demand that the Prime Minister gives answers that satisfy the Speaker.
But increasingly he wants to be the story at Westminster. His eye-catching costume yesterday said it all. He was resplendent in the blueberry and banana colours that affirm his rejection of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Pinned to his breast was a cobalt-yellow ribbon and he wore a glossy new tie that repeated the same motif. What about the rest? Was he wearing stripy azure and gold socks as well? He looked more like an ice cream salesman than the disinterested moderator of an ancient parliament. But he doesn’t mind appearing ridiculous as long as he appears.
Where will this end? It’s not inconceivable that he’ll appoint a press officer and hold weekly briefings to keep voters up to date with the latest Thoughts of Chairman Hoyle. He ought to step back, speak less, and reflect on his role and its proper limitations. He’s a vital cog in the mechanism but no more than that. He’s the potter’s wheel. He’s not the potter.