Bars and tea-rooms echo to Speaker war

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Indy Politics

Candidates vying to succeed Betty Boothroyd as Speaker of the House of Commons were engaged in a behind-the-scenes "battle of the modernisers" last night.

Candidates vying to succeed Betty Boothroyd as Speaker of the House of Commons were engaged in a behind-the-scenes "battle of the modernisers" last night.

As the hopefuls paraded their credentials in the House of Commons tea-rooms and bars yesterday in the last hours before the summer recess, their views on childcare, the hours MPs work and the abolition of ancient parliamentary rituals were high on the agenda.

But as the Speaker's Labour deputy, Michael Martin, emerged as the favourite among the 1997 intake of Labour MPs, some eyebrows were raised among older members at his friends' description of him as the "reform" candidate.

As chairman of the Administration Committee, which oversees internal House of Commons matters, from 1992 until 1997, and a deputy speaker since, he has had the chance to change things already, they said. "There have been plenty of opportunities," said one long-standing MP.

The 55-year-old former sheet metal worker had not been so sympathetic towards change, colleagues said. When he was asked in 1996 to comment on a proposal that the House should have a chief executive instead of the ancient post of Serjeant at Arms, he was scathing.

"Some whiz-kid walking in here and trying to cut a dash and make it all modern would probably come an absolute cropper," he said. Mr Martin, MP for Glasgow Springburn, has been openly traditionalist on moral and social issues throughout his 21 years in Westminster, though he has not voted or spoken since 1997 because of his role as a deputy speaker.

A Roman Catholic, he voted in favour of tightening the abortion laws on several occasions, and in 1994 he voted against lowering the age of consent for homosexuals.

Despite all this, at an end-of-term party for Labour women MPs, campaigners for a House of Commons crÿche praised Mr Martin and said they believed he was sympathetic. "He seems to be a moderniser. And at least he has a bit of warmth and humour," said one recently arrived back-bencher.

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