Labour whips have been accused of running a covert campaign to elect Margaret Beckett today as the third successive speaker drawn from the party's ranks.
The former foreign secretary goes into the election – conducted by secret ballot – with a narrow lead over her main rivals, the former Conservative cabinet minister Sir George Young and the Tory backbencher John Bercow.
Ten candidates – seven Tory, two Labour and a Liberal Democrat – have put themselves forward to replace Michael Martin, who resigned after criticism of his handling of the expenses crisis. The winner will face a daunting task: restoring the shattered reputation of the Commons.
Mrs Beckett's surprise candidacy, announced days after she was sacked as a minister by Gordon Brown, has rapidly gathered momentum to the point where she has passed Mr Bercow to become the front-runner. But her surge has provoked a backlash among Tory and Labour MPs who claimed her campaign was being privately orchestrated by Labour whips, who also successfully lobbied for Mr Martin nine years ago.
The Labour MP Stephen Pound predicted that Mrs Beckett would win, but protested that party whips were "touting" her for the position. He said on live television yesterday: "It isn't on. If any of the whips out there are listening, stop doing it. We know what you're doing – you're going round touting Margaret Beckett."
A Tory source said: "There's no doubt there's an operation under way for Beckett. Our whips have been told to stay out of it, but there's no such restraint on the other side."
One Bercow-supporting Labour MP conceded that some of the "party establishment" was swinging behind Mrs Beckett.
Mr Bercow has wide support among Labour benches, attracted by the antipathy his liberal views arouse among many of his fellow Conservative MPs. Some Tory MPs, meanwhile, are privately planning to support Mrs Beckett if she faces a final run-off with Mr Bercow. Others say Sir George is coming up on the rails.
Candidates must be nominated by at least 12 MPs, including three from another party, to reach the ballot paper. The Tories Richard Shepherd and Michael Lord could both struggle to achieve that, and there are question-marks over the backing for Labour's Parmjit Dhanda and the Tory Sir Patrick Cormack.
The candidate coming last is eliminated in each round of voting, along with any other candidate who fails to win 5 per cent of the ballots cast.
The Tories Ann Widdecombe, who has said she would only serve as speaker until the next election, and Sir Alan Haselhurst have backers in all parties, while the former Liberal Democrat deputy leader Sir Alan Beith insists that he is the dark horse candidate.