Clerk row rumbles on

Mr Speaker Bercow is now on an ASBO - an Amiable Speaker Behaviour Order.

His retreat from appointing the Australian Parliament's Carol Mills as the successor to Sir Robert Rogers as Clerk of the Commons should - just - be enough to ensure his survival in the Chair until the next election, so long as he allows the process to be managed by MPs and refrains from intervening, and from finding other ways to annoy Conservative MPs.

His ability to get into unnecessary spats has always been Mr Bercow's biggest weakness, but he's now reached the point where he just can't afford to do it again.

Even his interview in today's (Wednesday's) FT, in which he more or less concedes everything the critics of the appointment process are asking for, has ruffled sensitive Commons feathers.

The Bercow-baiters were out again today, with Simon Burns and Michael Fabricant attempting to raise further points of order about the fiasco of the Clerk appointment process, pursuing rumours that the Speaker subverted proper appointment processes to get Carol Mills in post - potentially a deadly allegation.

And his brusque dismissal of their questions and his suggestion that they rise to the level of events are now being used in evidence against him.

But the person who should really worry Mr Speaker is Jesse Norman - the Conservatives Philosopher-King Over the Water.

His masterminding of the defeat of Lords Reform in 2012 showed him to be a formidable parliamentary insurgent - the more so because he is always studiously polite, and he has already asked some searching questions about where the process, which culminated in the recommendation of Carol Mills, went wrong.

Rather than retweeting abusive comments about the Speaker, he was at the Backbench Business Committee on Tuesday afternoon, seeking time for a debate on what to do next, now that Mr Bercow has announced his "modest pause" in the appointment process.

Mr Norman's solution to the current imbroglio, backed by a carefully balanced panel of Commons heavyweights, is to set up an elected special six-member mini-select committee under a senior parliamentarian (former Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House Jack Straw is now inked in for the job) to consider if and how the role of the Clerk should be split.

They would have to report by 12 January - and then the report would be the basis of motions put to the House, probably via the Commons administrative body, the House of Commons Commission.

This would effectively pre-empt an internal carve-up by the Commission and make the issue a matter for decision by all MPs. It's likely to be debated on Monday night.

The special select committee's inquiry could be pretty entertaining, not least because we could get an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of the Commons, with the mouth-watering prospect of public evidence from the former Clerk, Sir Robert Rogers, who would be certain to face questions about his famously ill-tempered relationship with Mr Bercow.

The current acting Clerk, David Natzler would be another obvious witness - although he would doubtless be very guarded.

And under the circumstances, clerking this exercise will be a pretty delicate assignment, too.

There is a very real dilemma over the future of the role; the Clerk is both chief executive of a considerable undertaking - the Commons has a vast budget and 2,700 employees - and also the Commons principal constitutional advisor. And the next incumbent could face enormous challenges in both areas.

The Clerk could be called upon to advise on the constitutional and parliamentary ramifications of Scottish independence - what role would Scottish MPs have in the Commons between the referendum and independence in 2016?

What if the next General Election yielded another hung parliament?

What about the fiendish issues around an EU membership referendum?

On the executive side, sooner or later, the old Victorian section of the Palace of Westminster needs extensive restoration and refurbishment.

This would be a multi-billion pound exercise - the heritage equivalent of the Crossrail megaproject, according to one insider - which could require the partial or even total closure of the building for several years.

Even drawing up the contract to draw up the contract for the work would be a vast and complex undertaking, and the Commons would need a high calibre specialist to manage the process - not least because if it was bungled Parliament could end up in a terrible, possibly asbestos-sprinkled, mess.

Sir Robert Rogers was no managerial incompetent. On his watch the House delivered big real-terms budget savings, while expanding its activities and embracing digital technology. And he argues that the experience of 40 years in the service of the Commons informed his decisions at almost every turn; that the idea that his job can be neatly divided into someone in charge of pay and rations and someone in charge of constitutional arcana is an over-simplification.

He's also against a "dual monarchy" with a Clerk and a co-equal Chief Exec. If there is to be a Chief Operating Officer they should be under the ultimate authority of the Clerk.

In his FT interview the Speaker seems to concede that point, and interestingly, an e-mail sent by Mr Speaker to all MPs in the wake of his statement to the House on Monday, describes how the Commons managerial furniture is already being re-arranged.

David Natzler, the Clerk Assistant, and the leading internal candidate to replace Sir Robert as Clerk, takes over the role as principal constitutional adviser to the House, but with the management functions delegated to the officials in the Commons Management Board.

We're now heading into an interregnum of several months, so those arrangements will be road-tested for at least a short while. And if the role is ultimately split, Mr Speaker will be able to claim a partial victory from what looks at the moment like an expensive fiasco.

But the price would be considerable delay.

If the committee reports in January, and the House gives its verdict within a couple of weeks, the chances are that a new Clerk and any new managerial structure would not be in place until after the next election.