MPs wait in wings to succeed Madam Speaker

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The Independent Online
THE LIMBERING up has already started for a candidate to replace Betty Boothroyd, as the Speaker of the House of Commons, although her last curtain call is likely to be some years away.

Whoever emerges will be hard-pressed to match the star qualities of the former dancer who became the first woman Speaker in history with the words: "Call me Madam!"

Ms Boothroyd, 68, has signalled that she will be standing down from her West Bromwich West constituency at the next general election, sparking speculation at Westminster about her successor.

There is no shortage of candidates to take on the chair, the wig, the black tights and the buckled shoes to call "Order, Order" in the House. Traditionally, there is a "Buggins' turn" with the Tories alternating with Labour for the chair.

As a result, MPs are already drawing up lists of senior Tories who might fit the bill, such as Sir Brian Mawhinney, the former party chairman, and Sir Norman Fowler, the party's "comeback kid", who was appointed by William Hague as home affairs spokesman in this month's reshuffle. Tom King, a former defence secretary, and John MacGregor, former Leader of the Commons and a member of the Neill committee on public standards, could be "establishment" Tory candidates.

Labour MPs yesterday said neither Sir Brian nor Sir Norman would be acceptable to the majority of Labour backbenchers. Sir Alan Haselhurst, the deputy Speaker, a pro- European Tory moderate, may be a better bet, but he is regarded as lacking the star qualities now seen as part of the job for controlling the House in the television era. Another prime candidate is Patrick Cormack, a senior backbench Tory who was overlooked for preferment by John Major.

Labour MPs would relish the prospect of seeing the former chancellor, Ken Clarke in the Speaker's wig. "Ken Clarke would be brilliant, but whether he would want to do it is another matter," said a ministerial aide.

"You need someone with a bit of wit, and a bit of charm," said a Tory MP. "Fowler would be all right. I suppose that must be why he's hanging around so long."

There is also the intriguing prospect of it switching for the first time to the Liberal Democrats and Alan Beith, who lost the leadership race to Paddy Ashdown after David Steel retired, is regarded as having the right qualities.

By the time that Ms Boothroyd steps down, there could be unexpected Labour candidates from the Cabinet, such as Ann Taylor, the Leader of the House. Michael Martin, who is on the Speaker's panel of chairmen, is another popular Labour contender.

Ms Boothroyd, a former Labour right-winger shows no signs of being in a rush to leave, despite the arduous hours, and the exhausting tours abroad when MPs are on their recess.

She has confided to friends that when she gets a break, she likes nothing more than to go parascending from the back of a motor boat in the Mediterranean.

Letting the wind blow through her hair, dangling from a parachute, the Speaker can forget all about points of order.