Lindsay Hoyle is in high spirits as he reels off a list of challenges that the past 12 months have thrown his way, since he became Speaker of the House of Commons last November. “No sooner had I been elected than we went into a general election,” he says. “Then in the election I decided to develop Type 1 diabetes.
“Then it was Brexit. Then Brexit was whisked off platform one, and along came Covid.”
After his elevation and following almost 10 years as a deputy in the Commons chair, Hoyle, the MP for Chorley, moved into the Speaker’s large, splendid residence in parliament. It was all fine decor, huge rooms and wonderful paintings, which might sound like a perk. In reality, he suggests, it has proved to be anything but. “It would be nice if that was the case,” he says in his rich Lancastrian accent, hooting with laughter. “I have had to bring a cat because of all the mice. So Patrick comes with me. At the moment there are works on fire safety, and asbestos is being removed, so it is not the best time to be around to be quite honest.
“And we had a water leak with major water damage that’s bought the ceiling down [in the residence above the state rooms].”
“So,” he points out to those who might think he is living a pampered life down south like royalty: “I wouldn’t get too carried away!”
As he approaches his first anniversary in the job, Hoyle is already stamping his style on the Commons. Where his predecessor, John Bercow, became a global celebrity for crying “Orderrrrr Orderrrrrrrr” during interminable Brexit debates, Hoyle is establishing his own identity defending the rights of backbench MPs and their constituents in the uniquely uncertain and confusing conditions created by the pandemic.
Week after week he tells ministers in Boris Johnson’s government that the way they treat parliament, by leaking statements to the media and failing to answer MPs’ questions, is “simply unacceptable” and that he will not put up with it any longer. If they continue to hold parliament in contempt he will drag them before the house to answer urgent questions day after day until they comply.
The greatest achievement of his time in charge so far has been simply keeping parliament working during a pandemic, he says. “We have had 700 years of how we did business in this house and we turned it over in 24 hours.
“The fact that we could have people who voted online, the fact that we could have people who asked questions online. Who would have thought that after 700 years we could do it? I am so proud of the staff in this house.”
But after his team kept democracy open, the government failed to honour its side of the constitutional bargain by respecting parliament’s place in the system.
“What we did see was a new style of government,” Hoyle says, making clear he thinks there was far too much concentration of decision-making on Downing Street.
“The house matters to me. I represent the house. It is about ensuring the house has got somebody who will stand up for members. In the end whatever the government might think, including the prime minister, we are all MPs, there to represent our constituencies. We are there to pose the questions to government. We have got to hold them to account and ministerial statements were bypassing the house. They were using Downing Street.
“We have not got a presidential system. We have a prime minister and that prime minister is answerable to the House of Commons, and the same with the secretary of state for health.”
Recently, breaking with tradition, Hoyle has appeared on television news programmes to make his points, in his role, as he puts it, as “the referee” of the House of Commons, flashing the equivalent of yellow and red cards at ministers for foul play. A few weeks ago he ordered health secretary Matt Hancock to apologise to the Commons, saying he would not tolerate MPs being treated with such disdain over the release of key information about the pandemic.
Asked how he sees himself in comparison with Bercow, he says they are like chalk and cheese. Bercow told Hoyle to call him if he ever needed advice, but Hoyle hasn’t, suggesting they were never exactly close. “I am the 158th Speaker, and the previous 157 were all different. I am a big cricket fan and a rugby league fan and John was a tennis fan. He was an Arsenal fan, I am a Bolton fan. We are always going to have differences, the north versus the south. It is not about how John Bercow did it, it is about how I do it, how I take this job forward.”
Before new announcements this week about further tightening of lockdown measures, Hoyle is doubtful that parliament will be told first. “I have never seen so much speculation about lockdowns, who is going to be affected, how it is going to affect them, not least in my area of Lancashire.”
As for prime minister’s questions, he recognises that it is all “theatre” but it is important theatre nonetheless. “It is very important to MPs,” even if the prime minister often doesn’t give clear answers. “They get up there to speak for their constituents. It works for them.”
For all the difficulties, he has loved his first year. It has been an enormous privilege and “enormous fun”. That said, the new Mr Speaker likes nothing more than fleeing back up to Lancashire at weekends – getting away from Westminster and his supposedly palatial residence.
“Lancashire is where I spend my weekends. I love going home. My home is Chorley, my friends are in Chorley, my family. There is no better experience to get your feet back on the ground than walking round Chorley market talking to real people about real things.
“My weekends are not spent in some palace. They are spent in Chorley – and that matters to me.”