Labour MPs last night rebelled against an attempt by government whips to install Margaret Beckett as Speaker of the Commons.
A lobbying campaign by Labour whips backfired spectacularly after it became public and ensured that the new Speaker would be a Conservative MP – John Bercow, a backbencher who enjoyed strong Labour support.
Mrs Beckett, the 66-year-old former foreign secretary, was a surprise late runner in the race to succeed Michael Martin, the first Speaker for more than 300 years to be forced out of office, who formally resigned his Commons seat yesterday. She left the Government two weeks ago after failing to win a full Cabinet post after serving as housing minister since last year. She began another dramatic day at Westminster as the bookmakers' favourite but as MPs returned from their constituencies it was clear that the whips' push had become counterproductive.
After making a poorly received speech when the candidates made their pitch in the Commons chamber, Mrs Beckett received only 74 votes from the 646 MPs in the first round of voting – trailing a poor third behind Mr Bercow (179) and Sir George Young, an Eton-educated baronet (112).
In the second round, her support dropped to just 70 MPs. Although she was not formally eliminated, she had no hope of winning and pulled out of the contest.
Four of the 10 candidates were knocked out after the first round – Sir Michael Lord, a Deputy Speaker, who came bottom with nine votes; and three candidates who failed to win five per cent of the votes – Tory MPs Sir Patrick Cormack (13) and Richard Shepherd (15) and Labour's Parmjit Dhanda (26).
In the second round, Mr Bercow again topped the poll with 221 votes, to 174 to Sir George, 70 for Mrs Beckett, 57 for the Tory Sir Alan Haselhurst, 46 for the Liberal Democrat Sir Alan Beith and 30 for the former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe. She was eliminated and minutes later Mrs Beckett, Sir Alan Haselhurst and Sir Alan Beith withdrew, leaving a two-horse race between Mr Bercow and Sir George in the run-off. The election took six hours. There were long delays as ballot papers had to be printed after each round and Commons officials counted the votes by hand after MPs cast them in a secret ballot for the first time.
Mrs Beckett suffered the disadvantage of making the first of the 10 speeches. One Liberal Democrat said: "She was dire – she didn't even seem as if she wanted the job."
Mrs Beckett faced criticism that she was an establishment candidate with little experience on the backbenches and a recognition among many Labour MPs that it was the Tories' turn to occupy the Speaker's chair.
Sir George was viewed as having made the best speech, mixing jokes with promises to call for reform in the wake of the scandal over MPs' expenses. The former cabinet minister, who is on the centre-left of the Tory party, has a strong appeal to Liberal Democrats and to some ministers.
Mr Bercow had hoped to pile up 200 votes in the first round and although he comfortably topped the ballot he still fell short of that target. His team struggled to garner much support among his fellow Conservatives – gaining the public support of just two fellow Tories – and switched their attention to Liberal Democrats.
Mrs Beckett was forced to address accusations that she would be instinctively opposed to reform and too close to the Government. She insisted: "I have never been afraid to speak truth to power, wherever power may be found." But she was overshadowed by Sir George, who spoke next. He raised laughs with a series of jokes and in an attempt to reassure wavering Labour MPs said: "I have always between in the Conservative Party, not run by the Conservative Party."
Mr Bercow, who spoke fifth, hit back at claims that he was too young for the job at 46 and answered accusations that he lacked support among Tories by stressing he had been nominated by MPs from six different parties. Describing himself as the "clean-break candidate", he insisted: "I don't want to be someone. I want to do something. I want to implement an agenda for reform, for renewal, for revitalisation and for the re-assertion of the core values of this great institution in the context of the 21st century."
One backbench Labour MP spoiled his ballot paper in the first round of voting rather than vote for any of the candidates. Bassetlaw MP John Mann said: "It was the gentlemen's club at its worst. None of them has got a strong reforming agenda. Some of the speeches were shocking, after what we have been through recently." Mr Mann said he would probably use his vote in later rounds in the hope of blocking his least-favoured contenders, including Sir George, Mrs Beckett and Miss Widdecombe.
The Commons decides: How MPs voted
Margaret Beckett......... 74
Sir George Young......... 112
Ann Widdecombe......... 44
Sir Alan Beith......... 55
John Bercow......... 179
Richard Shepherd......... 15
Sir Michael Lord......... 9
Sir Patrick Cormack......... 13
Sir Alan Haselhurst......... 66
Parmjit Dhanda......... 26
Margaret Beckett......... 70
Sir George Young......... 174
Ann Widdecombe......... 30
Sir Alan Beith......... 46
John Bercow......... 221
Sir Alan Haselhurst......... 57
John Bercow......... 322
Sir George Young......... 271
The Speaker's in-tray: Five ways to restore confidence
1 REBUILD PUBLIC TRUST A key question will be whether the new Speaker is a "shop steward" who represents MPs or a figurehead who represents Parliament to the nation. Many MPs believe that Michael Martin, the previous Speaker, was too keen to be a "shop steward". They want his successor to prioritise rebuilding the voters' trust in Parliament after the scandal over MPs' expenses.
2 SORT OUT MPS' EXPENSES Surely, the new Speaker will want to prevent a repeat of last Thursday's black comedy, when much of the detail of MPs' expenses was blacked out. The next batch of expenses, for the 2008/09 year, is due in October. The Speaker will also have to implement proposals from Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life this autumn. Will he or she back a bumper pay rise for MPs?
3 STAND UP TO THE GOVERNMENT The new Speaker will be under pressure to flex Parliament's muscles against the executive by wresting control of choosing the members and chairmen of select committees from party whips. Many MPs hope they will take a tough line on ministers who announce proposals to the media before making Commons statements – if necessary, by depriving them of the right to make such statements.
4 REFORM PARLIAMENT Reform ideas include ensuring more topical debates and insisting that MPs control more of the parliamentary timetable, which is largely in the Government's gift at present. Other proposals include granting more emergency debates – even if ministers are reluctant to be summoned to the Commons at short notice.
5 SPEAKER'S REWARDS As the highest commoner in the land, the Speaker is well remunerated with a salary of £141,186 a year and a "gold-plated" non-contributory pension worth £393,287 a year on top of his or her MP's pension. Some MPs hope that, as a signal to the public that things must change in hard economic times, the new Speaker will cut back the pension entitlement. They may be disappointed.Reuse content