Election for Boothroyd's successor becomes surreal penalty shoot-out

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It is the mother of parliaments and the model for democracies around the world. But tomorrow afternoon its members gather to elect a Speaker using a system with all the sophistication of a penalty shoot-out.

It is the mother of parliaments and the model for democracies around the world. But tomorrow afternoon its members gather to elect a Speaker using a system with all the sophistication of a penalty shoot-out.

At 2.30pm the father of the House, 84-year-old Sir Edward Heath, will rise from his seat and name a candidate of his choosing. And if that lucky candidate gets more than half the MPs' votes, the election is over; if he or she doesn't, then Sir Edward gets to choose again from the list of 12.

This arcane and almost incomprehensible "sudden death" procedure may be traditional, but it has infuriated many MPs and former ministers, led by the veteran rebel Tony Benn, one of Mr Heath's oldest adversaries.

Before a vote has been cast in anger, he will demand a completely different set of rules. It may seem like a bit of pre-match argy-bargy, but the fight for a more open procedure has been billed as a battle for the soul of Parliament itself.

Backed by the former Tory ministers Sir George Young, Douglas Hogg, Sir Nicholas Lyell and Gillian Shephard, Mr Benn will call for a straightforward ballot of candidates, the largest field to contest the post since it was created in 1376, so that each of them stands a fair chance of winning.

"My real interest in this is trying to get the House of Commons off its knees," he told The Independent on Sunday.

"We are the weakest, most impotent, serf-like Commons I have ever known. We don't debate whether we should send troops to Sierra Leone or bomb Serbia.

"What we are discussing is not who the Speaker is, but whether the House of Commons acts like the BBC advisory committee giving advice to the Director General. I feel very strongly about that."

There is every possibility that the selection process will descend into chaos, with MPs making more points of order to try to get the process delayed until a better way can be found for selecting Betty Boothroyd's successor.

MPs will arrive tomorrow without any proper ballot paper for the election of the Speaker, and with doubts still remaining over who is running. The politics are almost as complex as the voting system. Senior Labour ministers are in favour of their opponents' candidate, Old Etonian and former cabinet minister Sir George Young, to replace Miss Boothroyd. But backbench MPs are determined to resist the subtle arm-twisting.

A majority of Labour MPs surveyed by The Independent on Sunday said they were ready to give two fingers to their leadership and elect a Labour Speaker. Scottish Labour MP Michael Martin has emerged as the clear favourite among Labour backbenchers. He would be the first Roman Catholic Speaker of the Commons since the Reformation and is being promoted by his Labour supporters as a "working-class" candidate.

David Clark, the Cabinet Office minister sacked by Tony Blair for protesting too much over the emasculation of the Freedom of Information Bill, was also gaining support as a dark horse candidate from those who want to modernise the Commons.

Ministers are not supposed to meddle in the election of the Speaker, but they were worried that Mr Blair would be accused by the Tories of abusing his power if Labour used its overwhelming majority in the Commons to elect another Labour Speaker. The Independent on Sunday learned that Margaret Beckett privately lobbied colleagues after the funeral of Donald Dewar to support a Tory candidate. Clive Soley, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and backbench "shop steward", also passed the word around that, given the size of Labour's majority, it would be wise to let the Tories have the chair.

* A Midlands council has announced plans for a Betty Boothroyd museum in honour of the retiring Speaker. Sandwell, part of Miss Boothroyd's West Bromwich West constituency, believes her cult status, gained through years of keeping order over unruly MPs, will make the museum a tourist "must see". The council has also launched an internet site dedicated to her: www.bettyboothroyd.net