Leading article: A Speaker for our times

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The Independent Culture
BETTY BOOTHROYD is a star, whose performance has raised the status of Speaker of the House of Commons in the eyes of the people. She has been a fine role model for women, especially in curbing the schoolboy excesses of male MPs, and has been robust in defence of Parliament's independence. But she intends to stand down at or before the next election. Her successor will face formidable challenges. There will be conflict over the powers of the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly; there may be a change to the electoral system; there will be a continuing draining of power from the Commons chamber to 10 Downing Street, and a downgrading of the reporting of parliament - except, of course, in this newspaper. It could be argued that the office of Speaker is more important now than at any time since the Civil War.

Who, then, possesses the necessary theatrical skill, integrity and ferocity in defence of the rights of the people's representatives? Tony Benn would be a good Speaker, strong on the historical roots of British democracy and healthily disrespectful of the monarchy, but he carries too much ideology in his shoulder bag. Andrew Mackinlay understands Parliament's role of checking the executive, though perhaps he should do the checking himself rather than front the show.

But if MPs want to re-assert Parliament's integrity, they should not elect as Speaker a member of the governing party.

Most of the Conservative names touted are colourless deadbeats. Kenneth Clarke is not, but the job would bore him. Peter Brooke has made some very funny speeches, but that hardly qualifies him. Perhaps, then, it should be a Liberal Democrat. Robert Maclennan is a fine constitutionalist but too desiccated. Alan Beith is the Lib Dems' best: witty, sharp - but then, hardly material for a soap-operatic people's hero.

There is only one real candidate to step into Betty's buckles and gaiters, though the traditional garb may need some modification: the man in the white suit, the Independent member for Tatton, Martin Bell.

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