Margaret Beckett joins Speaker race

The battle for the Commons Speakership was hotting up tonight as former Cabinet minister Margaret Beckett threw her hat into the ring.

Mrs Beckett, who was sacked from the Government in Prime Minister Gordon Brown's reshuffle last week, said she wanted to help Parliament face its "very considerable problems".

"I will be sending a letter round to MPs asking for support," she added.

The surprise move by a political heavyweight comes with less than a fortnight to go before the crunch Commons vote to decide Michael Martin's successor.

Mrs Beckett said: "I think at the moment we have got very considerable problems in Parliament. We have got to make changes.

"After the next election, if we have a more finely balanced chamber than we have had in the recent past, it will be a very different ball game.

"I hope I can help us deal with that."

Asked if controversy over her expenses claims for hanging baskets and pot plants would damage her prospects, the recently-departed housing minister replied: "Only time will tell."

Ex-minister Parmjit Dhanda and Tory Sir Michael Lord also added their names to those vying for the powerful post today.

Mrs Beckett was quickly installed as the 4/1 second favourite by bookies after her announcement.

However, left-leaning Conservative backbencher John Bercow was looking increasingly difficult to beat amid reports that senior Labour figures are ready to back him.

The Buckingham MP's chances were seen as being further boosted this week when rival Frank Field joined the unsuccessful rebellion against Gordon Brown, angering many in his own party.

Mr Field and Mrs Beckett may also suffer because tradition suggests it is the turn of an opposition party after Labour provided the past two Speakers.

Other front-runners to take the chair include Tory Sir George Young and Liberal Democrat Sir Alan Beith.

A free vote will be held on 22 June to decide the winner.

In an email circulated to MPs, Mr Dhanda, a 37-year-old father of two, admitted that he was not "an obvious choice".

But he went on: "It's too late for evolution and time for us to be brave.

"I believe that if we firmly shift the pendulum of power back to the public they are more likely to put their trust in us again.

"To put these changes in place we will need a Speaker who is comfortable in, and able to communicate with modern Britain."

Sir Michael Lord, currently a Deputy Speaker, said: "I have got strong support, and I am very serious about the contest."

The Hansard Society is organising a hustings event for Monday, with Mrs Beckett now likely to attend.

Other candidates set to put their case include Sir Patrick Cormack, Sir Alan Haselhurst and Richard Shepherd.