A remarkable public spat between Midland MP Michael Fabricant and the Speaker of the House of Commons has reached new heights after Mr Fabricant demanded an inquiry into the resignation of a senior Commons official.
There was a time when the Speaker of the Commons could do no wrong. As far as MPs were concerned, his or her word was law.
As to the possibility of criticising the Speaker in public, forget it. That just wasn’t done.
But times change. Former Speaker Michael Martin was the victim of behind-the-scenes sniping from MPs, perhaps egged on by journalists who thought he wasn’t up to the job, before he resigned in 2009 over the expenses scandal.
His replacement, John Bercow, was always a controversial choice, backed by Labour MPs but opposed by many Conservatives – even though he was originally elected as a Tory MP.
He’s certainly managed to wind some MPs up the wrong way, and the most obvious example is Michael Fabricant, Conservative MP for Lichfield in Staffordshire.
Mr Fabricant, a pirate radio disc jockey in his youth, is generally known for his good humour and mild eccentricities.
But his humour has deserted him where Mr Bercow is concerned. He’s become the Speaker’s most outspoken critic.
Most recently, Mr Fabricant called for an inquiry into why Commons clerk Sir Robert Rogers decided to retire.
Mr Rogers is not a household name, but you may have seen him on the television when Commons debates or questions are broadcast. He sits in front of the Speaker sporting an impressive beard, moustache and sideburns, and occasionally turns around to give the Speaker advice.
In July, Mr Fabricant made an extraordinary allegation. Speaking in the Chamber of the Commons, he accused the Speaker of being abusive to his clerk. Spelling out an obscenity one letter at a time, Mr Fabricant told MPs: “We don’t know why he has chosen to retire early – though his working environment behind closed doors has not always been easy, as those in the know have already alluded, and in that respect, despite Sir Robert having studied Anglo Saxon at Oxford, and being told at least once in front of others to f*** off by you Mr Speaker, I think that wouldn’t have encouraged him to stay.”
The asterisks are all mine. Mr Bercow denied the claim, saying: “I’ll ignore that last observation which suffered from the disadvantage of being wrong.”
Now, Mr Fabricant has called for an inquiry into why Sir Robert retired.
But this is only the latest chapter in an ongoing battle between Mr Fabricant and the Speaker.
It seems to have begun on May 14, when Mr Fabricant attempted to take part in questions to the Welsh Secretary.
The Speaker ignored him and Mr Fabricant apparently muttered some sort of complaint.
The television footage doesn’t reveal what he said but it records the Speaker complaining about “chuntering from the honourable gentleman”, dismissing the MP with a wave of his hand and adding: “Be quiet! Silly man!” Mr Fabricant can be heard to exclaim: “Oh!”.
There was another confrontation on June 9, when Mr Fabricant attempted to question Theresa May, the Home Secretary, after she delivered a statement about Government efforts to combat extremism.
This time he was allowed to speak – but had to wait until last before he was called.
Once again, Mr Fabricant appears to have complained. Hansard records the Speaker telling him: “The honourable gentleman’s chuntering in the background is of no interest or relevance whatsoever.”
But this time Mr Fabricant took to Twitter, saying: “Speaker Bercow has been an innovator giving Parliament powers. But he ruins it by his foul temper and dishonour.
“Why HAS the Clerk resigned?”
And on July 16, in the Chamber, Mr Fabricant offered his answer to that question, when accused the Speaker of aiming bad language at Sir Robert.
The bad news for Mr Bercow is that it’s not just Mr Fabricant he has to contend with.
The Speaker (or strictly speaking, a committee he chairs) has picked an Australian woman called Carol Mills to be the new Commons clerk. She currently heads the Parliamentary Services Department in the Australian Senate, which looks after administration and the running of buildings.
But traditionally the post has gone to someone who is an expert in the British constitution and the workings of Parliament (as in, how laws are made – not how to keep the building warm).
Supporters of Mr Bercow point out that he is attempting to modernise the Commons and make it more accessible and relevant to the public. An outsider will do far more to help that process.
But the appointment has been criticised by Betty Boothroyd, the former Speaker and ex-MP for West Bromwich West, who is respected on all sides of the House.
Lady Boothroyd, now a peer, said: “I’m very sorry for this lady, Miss Mills, because she is totally out of her depth, she has no experience, she has no knowledge of the constitutional role of a parliamentary clerk.”
The Speaker’s critics clearly see the appointment of Miss Mills as a chance to undermine him. But their case is strengthened enormously by having the likes of Betty Boothroyd on their side.