ANDREW PIERCE: How Labour leader shocked the Speaker by barging into his tiny room – as Sue Gray lurked nearby

It had been a lacklustre Prime Minister’s Questions. Rishi Sunak looked to be going through the motions, while Sir Keir Starmer’s mind was clearly elsewhere. 

Yet when the weekly Commons circus came to an end on Wednesday afternoon, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle dived with some alacrity behind his chair, heading for the tiny Reasons Room, which seats just eight people, in the bowels of the Chamber.

And that’s where things got interesting. All day, the Westminster tea-rooms had been simmering with talk of the SNP’s forthcoming motion on a ‘ceasefire’ in Gaza – a move that threatened to rip the Labour party in two. MPs had been surprised that Sir Lindsay hadn’t made a statement on the imminent debate before PMQs.

Labour’s chief whip Sir Alan Campbell followed Sir Lindsay into the Reasons Room – and hot on the two men’s heels, I have established, was Starmer himself. The Labour leader barged his way in – and the Speaker, I understand, was astonished to see him do so. Normally, party leaders have no business attending private meetings between the Speaker and the whips. So what exactly was Starmer doing there?

And that’s not the only troubling new detail I have uncovered about yesterday’s extraordinary events at Westminster.

Also spotted lurking near the Reasons Room after PMQs was none other than Sue Gray, the ‘neutral’ ex-civil servant who presided over the Partygate inquiry that helped to torpedo Boris Johnson’s premiership in 2022.

Sir Lyndsay Hoyle, whose own father was a Labour MP, was first elected in 1997 – but is supposed to surrender all political allegiance as Speaker 

The steely Gray is now Starmer’s chief of staff, working diligently to secure a Labour victory at the next election. No wonder the Tory MPs who glimpsed her presence in the vicinity of the Speaker before such a crucial conversation immediately smelled a rat.

‘Sue Gray should have been nowhere near that meeting,’ one former minister hissed last night. ‘The moment we saw her, we knew there was an operation against the Speaker about the Gaza vote. She needs to learn the art of subtlety.’

Yesterday, Sir Lindsay categorically denied having spoken directly to Gray. But her fingerprints are all over what some have called a ‘backstairs stitch-up’ of the SNP – one that clearly favoured Hoyle’s own former party, Labour.

While the private arm-wrestling between the Speaker, the Labour leader and his chief whip took place behind closed doors, back in the Commons Chamber, an unrelated Private Member’s Bill about rural transport was rumbling on (raised by Tory ex-minister Therese Coffey).

Unusually, a frontbencher, Labour’s Sir Chris Bryant, hoisted himself to his feet to respond to Coffey’s fairly arcane speech. Bryant managed to string out his contribution for seven long minutes, even pausing to tell bemused MPs that there were 26 further Private Member’s Bills from MPs called ‘Chris’ in Parliament’s pipeline.

‘He was filibustering – time-wasting,’ says another Tory MP. ‘Now we know why. They were stalling to give Starmer more time to mug the Speaker.’

The irony of Bryant taking such a role in this tawdry affair was not lost on his fellow MPs. Last year, the shadow minister felt moved to publish a book: Code of Conduct: Why we Need to Fix Parliament and How To Do It. ‘This self-appointed purist deliberately exploited the very rules of the House that he railed against in his own book!’ cries one exasperated MP.

Tory MPs suspect Sir Lyndsay bowed to arm-twisting from Starmer who was trying to avoid a damaging backbench rebellion

Tory MPs suspect Sir Lyndsay bowed to arm-twisting from Starmer who was trying to avoid a damaging backbench rebellion

Just before Bryant sat down, Starmer returned to his frontbench seat in the Commons chamber. Wreathed in smiles, his private meeting with Hoyle had clearly gone well.

Minutes later, the Speaker himself arrived, and then made the bombshell and possibly career-ending announcement that he had turned decades of tradition on its head by allowing a vote on Labour’s motion instead of the SNP’s – a vote which had been crafted to prevent another massive revolt by Starmer’s backbenchers. Sir Lindsay’s deputies had no idea he was going to do this.

The announcement triggered the stormiest scenes in the Chamber since Hoyle’s predecessor John Bercow deliberately twisted parliamentary procedure to try to thwart Brexit.

There were cries of ‘shame, resign’ and even ironic calls to ‘bring back Bercow’. The SNP are granted just three Opposition Day debates a year – and Hoyle’s decision robbed them of this important constitutional opportunity.

Neither Hoyle nor Starmer will discuss what went on in their private meeting. But it’s clear the Speaker was warned by Labour luminaries that he might have ‘blood on his hands’ if he didn’t do as they wish: Islamist extremists had threatened violence against Labour MPs who failed to vote for a ceasefire. In his statement, Hoyle admitted as much, saying he was ‘very, very concerned about the safety of all MPs’.

Hoyle, whose own father was a Labour MP, was first elected in 1997 – but is supposed to surrender all political allegiance as Speaker. He has done serious damage to his reputation – and he knows it. Stephen Flynn, the SNP’s Westminster leader, said Sir Lindsay’s position was now ‘entirely intolerable’. Some have dubbed him a ‘lame duck’.

Tory MPs suspect Hoyle bowed to arm-twisting from Starmer who was trying to avoid a damaging backbench rebellion, expected to number as many as 90 MPs.

There is even talk now that the Tories might break with tradition and put up a candidate to oppose Hoyle in his Chorley constituency at the next general election. (By convention the Speaker is elected unopposed.)

Many Labour MPs are also unhappy – as they want to protect the independence of the Speaker. John McDonnell, who was shadow chancellor under Jeremy Corbyn, said: ‘I just don’t know if Starmer & Co tried to threaten or influence Hoyle,’ adding: ‘Maybe everyone should come clean about what meetings took place.’

Hoyle, a popular figure who had done much to erase the poison of the Bercow years, is not under any immediate threat. But his prospects were not helped yesterday when he went into the Commons tea room and a number of Labour MPs loudly applauded him.

‘It made it look even more like Labour has recaptured Lindsay,’ says one Tory MP. ‘I say that with real regret as I like him. But he’s been pushed around by Starmer and now looks weak: he’s lost the confidence of dozens of MPs. But he’s a decent bloke and the real villains here are the Labour leader and his Chief Whip, who bullied a good man.’