Boothroyd under fire from Tory backbench

Speaker accused: Sir Marcus Fox to discuss complaints of bias
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Political Editor

Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the 1922 committee, is expected to seek an informal meeting with the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, to discuss complaints by some Tory MPs that she has been high handed in some of her dealings with them.

Ms Boothroyd began a long weekend away yesterday after one of the more turbulent weeks in her five-year tenure of the Speaker's Chair - by all accounts in no mood to be "pushed around" by her critics on the Tory backbenches.

A senior Tory backbencher yesterday confirmed in the wake of a meeting of the 1922 executive on Thursday that Sir Marcus was likely to seek a "quiet chat" with the Speaker to discuss the criticisms. A robust Ms Boothroyd effectively challenged her critics on Thursday to put down a motion against her if they wished and promised it would be "debated immediately".

But there were growing signs that party business managers and many Tory MPs are wary of joining a campaign of criticism by a small and vociferous group in the party - among them Alan Duncan, MP for Rutland and Melton, and a parliamentary aide to Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman.

And parliamentary supporters of the Speaker - who enjoys a legendary level of popularity by the standards of other politicians in the country at large - strongly refute suggestions that as a former Labour MP she has been biased against the government benches in her rulings.

A widely publicised tally of complaints against the Speaker yesterday included claims that she had been wrong to cut off an intervention by Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary; that she unnecessarily rebuked Rod Richards, Welsh Under-Secretary for his criticism of Tony Blair for sending his son to a grant-maintained school; and that she refused to condemn alleged "bully boy" tactics by Labour whips against Labour rebels in this week's vote on the Budget resolutions.

But her supporters counter with an equally detailed list of cases in which she has come down on heavily on Labour MPs - pointing out that the only MPs she has barred from the Chamber have been non-Tories: Dennis Skinner (Labour, twice); Dale Campbell-Savours (Labour, twice) and Ian Paisley (DUP, once).

They strongly counter claims that she was unfair to Mr Hurd after Michael Howard's statement on asylum on 20 November by reminding him that he should ask questions rather than make a statement. The suggestion that she showed more indulgence to Sir David Steel on the same day is countered by the argument that Sir David did indeed ask a series of questions in his intervention.

Ms Boothroyd was also abrupt in cutting in on the Labour MP Piara Khabra in the same sitting, interrupting him after only 25 words of an intervention to say: "Order. This is a time for questions." Hansard then records the following brisk exchange: Mr Khabra: "I will go on to a question." Madam Speaker: "No, we don't go on to questions. We begin with questions."

Recently she has taken a tough line with an intervention by Dennis Skinner in Treasury Questions, and with the Labour backbencher Angela Eagle after a statement on the National Blood Service.

The likely encounter between Sir Marcus and Ms Boothroyd may not be quite the frosty affair some of the Speaker's more active critics would like. The two MPs have known each other since their Yorkshire childhood, went to school together at Eastborough, and even attended Dewsbury's Vivienne School of Dancing at the same time.