Retiring clerk of Commons makes plea for Speaker to remain neutral

The retiring clerk of the House of Commons, Sir Robert Rogers, has made a plea for the Speaker to remain a neutral figure who acts as a servant of MPs as he defends his record as a moderniser of parliament in the face of suggestions that he has put Commons traditions before its relevance.

Rogers, widely admired on both sides of the Commons and employed in parliament for more than 40 years, is retiring early amid persistent reports that his relations with John Bercow have become untenable.

There is an as yet anonymous early-day motion circulating calling for Bercow to stand down as Speaker, possibly at the end of this parliament. Separate reports suggest that Bercow, frustrated at what he regards as the conservatism of the institution, is backing the appointment of a replacement for Rogers not just from outside parliament, but from outside the UK, in the form of an Australian candidate, Carol Mills. The six-strong selection committee, due to make its choice later this week, is believed to be divided.

The clerk is not only the chief constitutional adviser to parliament, but also the chief executive of the Commons estate – what Rogers describes as "this nine acres of Grade I-listed building, this wonderful Victorian gothic wedding cake on the banks of the Thames".

Critics of Bercow say he has become increasingly unpredictable, overbearing and sometimes straightforwardly rude to staff and MPs, mainly on the Conservative side. His defenders say he has been targeted because of his well-advertised political journey to the left. He was never the favoured choice of many Tory MPs.

Rogers, the 49th clerk since 1363, insists that he will not discuss his relationship with Bercow, let alone recent reports that he was told to "fuck off" by the Speaker.

He says: "We give advice in confidence, and the other side of that coin is that personal relationships are also in confidence. Were that not so, we would start to break down the relationship of trust that rightly exists between officers of the house and the MPs. Wherever you start to break that trust down, you do the relationship damage."

But he adds pointedly about the public role of the Speaker: "All I can say is that historically, the house has given the Speaker, the chair, really remarkable powers and that rests on the tradition of impartiality and being a servant of the house, something which dates back to Arthur Onslow in the 18th century. I think I would leave that there as a statement of the relationship between the Speaker and the house."

Rogers, however, is eager to ensure that he is not remembered as a stuffed-shirt traditionalist determined to preserve the mother of parliaments in aspic. If there has been a breakdown in relations between Bercow and him – and he is the soul of discretion – it has not a disagreement over objectives.

Rogers points out that when Bercow's ill-starred predecessor, Michael Martin, was forced to quit, it was he who compiled a 75-point programme of Commons reforms. Some of the ideas stemmed from work he had done for the Commons modernisation committee set up by the Labour cabinet member Robin Cook.

"The reason I did it was that the house was in turmoil, or at least suffering a deep sense of insecurity and unease. We were at a fork in the road or a dead end. The previous Speaker was on the point of resignation. The expenses scandal had given everyone the most appalling time. I thought that the house would want to reach out quickly, to have a constructive agenda with ideas that would strengthen parliament."

Some of those ideas, such as electing select committee chairmen, improving pre-legislative scrutiny, making the prime minister answer questions from the liaison committee and increasing the frequency with which ministers are called at short notice to the chamber, stemmed from reforms advocated by Rogers. Nearly 40% of what he proposed in his 75-point programme "has happened in one form or another", he says.

He says of prime minister's questions – the public's chief interface with parliament – that organised barracking is wrong. But, perhaps in contrast to Bercow, he thinks "noise is part of the drama and theatre".

He says: "If you put 500 people of sharply different views – and people don't take account of the fact that the theatricality of the chamber is related to its size; it is almost exactly the same size as a tennis court if you include the run-outs – I would be amazed if they sat there in reverential silence."

He also warns against a rush to electronic voting by MPs, a way of saving them hundreds of hours across a five-year parliament. He worries about verification of the vote. "This is not about getting £100 out of a cash machine. This could be about whether a government survives." Voting is also the moment when ministers, dragged out of their Whitehall offices, can be cornered by MPs.

Rogers has an intriguing word of warning about the potentially turbulent times ahead, and not just the possibility of a minority government after 2015. He says: "Whatever happens in the Scottish referendum, there will be quite substantial change for Westminster.

"If it is a no by a relatively small majority, there will be devo max and more powers passed to the Scottish parliament. If it is a yes in September, there are immediately 59 Scottish MPs that are in the departure lounge.

"After the next election, by stages, the role and presence of those 59 MPs will be an issue. In the next parliament, the ultimate loss of those 59 members could change the electoral arithmetic and lead to a change of government.

"The rules will be very clear. If they are members of the House of Commons, they will be able to vote, but if it is a yes vote and as we move to a separation, their role will become more and more of an issue."

This may be an implicit plea for the Commons to appoint someone with UK parliamentary experience as his successor. In our unwritten constitution, after all, MPs travel without maps, and sometimes the clerk of the house is their only guide.

Either way, the Commons may find itself the poorer for being deprived of Rogers' advice and experience at such a potentially fraught time in its history.

Powered by article was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for The Guardian on Thursday 24th July 2014 19.41 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010