Turning the tide

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Media captionConservative MP Charles Walker is clapped by Labour MPs after claiming he has been "played like a fool" by key figures in the government

Taste the irony: in the final Today in Parliament (Friday 27th, BBC Radio 4, 23.30 GMT) of this parliament, William Hague reflects on the persuasive power of oratory, and how it can visibly swing opinion in the House of Commons.

Today, he was on the receiving end of that phenomenon, as backbench stalwart Charles Walker nailed him, with a quite extraordinary speech.

As Chair of the Commons Procedure Select Committee, Mr Walker was opposing the government motion for a decision at the start of new Parliament, on whether the sitting Speaker should resume the Chair, should be taken by a secret ballot.

His opposition was less about the substance of the issue and more about the way it had been sprung onto the Commons agenda. He accused the government of attempting to put the motion after opposition MPs had been lulled into going home.

He complained that, despite all kinds of encounters with people who knew about the motion, he was not told about it.

He started dry and wry, observing that he and the Speaker both had a temper and they needed to work to control it. But as he continued, the emotional temperature rose, and his voice cracked slightly. And his peroration was devastating.

"I have been played as a fool, and when I go home tonight I will look in the mirror and see an honourable fool looking back at me… and I would much rather be an honourable fool, in this or any other matter than a clever man."

Striking home

On the front bench, the Leader of the Commons, William Hague, veteran of many a charged Commons debate, reacted, for just about the only time in the debate. His countenance cracked for a moment.

By that time he had been accused, woundingly, of dishonourable behaviour by any number of Labour MPs.

But this struck home.

On the Tory benches some MPs had tears in their eyes, and several who had intended to abstain were converted into opponents of the motion. (It was, incidentally, a very bad sign for the government that the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, not a noted admirer of Speaker Bercow, was sitting beside Mr Walker.)

Across the Chamber, Labour MPs rose in a quite extraordinary standing ovation.

And in that moment the debate turned.

What had looked like a rear-guard action became a victory charge, and those who saw the proposed rule change as a direct assault on the Speaker suddenly found themselves carrying the day.

In vain did Conservative Jesse Norman protest that the Speaker had not called enough supporters of the motion. The Speaker lashed back - pointing out William Hague had made a long speech (with plenty of interventions) and that it was the government which had allocated one hour for the debate.

The Speaker emerges from this debate in a pretty strong position, with more Conservative support than some had imagined. A further challenge to his position, in May, looks less likely. But the chair is now embroiled in partisan politics - with the Labour whips campaigning to save him and the Conservative whips campaigning to weaken him.

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Media captionThe government is defeated over a bid to change the way a future Speaker is elected to the House of Commons

But the government whips now have egg on their faces.

"It would be nice if we had a chief whip who could actually whip," commented one senior Tory backbencher. The point at issue was probably too in-house and intricate to have much cut-through with the electorate, but this was hardly the note on which the Conservatives had wanted to send their troops into battle in the election.

Their leaders have been made to look too clever by half in the final moments of the Parliament.