Former Minister Margaret Beckett and Tory MP John Bercow are emerging as front-runners to be the next Commons Speaker.
At least 10 MPs are preparing to stand in the election on 22 June to succeed Michael Martin, who resigned over his handling of the expenses scandal. The field has become so crowded that some of the candidates may struggle to win enough nominations from fellow backbenchers to put their names forward. One told The Independent: "Some of these people are simply entering to raise their profile. It is becoming ridiculous."
So far seven Conservatives – Mr Bercow, Sir Patrick Cormack, Sir Alan Haselhurst, Sir Michael Lord, Richard Shepherd, Ann Widdecombe and Sir George Young – have said they will stand for the job which will be elected by secret ballot. Two Labour MPs have announced their candidacy – Mrs Beckett and Parmjit Dhanda – and they could be joined by the former Social Security minister Frank Field.
The long-serving Liberal Democrat Sir Alan Beith is definitely standing and could be joined by the party's former leader, Sir Menzies Campbell. There is a feeling among Tories that it is their party's turn to occupy the Speaker's chair as the last two incumbents – Betty Boothroyd and Mr Martin – were drawn from the Labour benches. But many Labour MPs are rallying round Mrs Beckett's surprise candidacy. One senior party figure said: "My money's on her. There are more of us than there are Tories."
Mr Bercow, however, appears to have strong backing among Labour MPs impressed by his independence of mind and criticism of the Tory leadership. One Labour left-winger said: "Many MPs admire his transformation from a Thatcherite into a human being." Sir Alan Haselhurst, the deputy Speaker, is also winning strong support and is said to have the backing of some cabinet ministers. One Tory backer said: "He has virtually done the job for years and has natural authority."
Sir Patrick Cormack, who is making his second bid for the post, said yesterday he had been sent many messages of support. However, many Tories believe he will appeal to the same constituency as Sir George Young, the chairman of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee.
Miss Widdecombe, who is standing as a stop-gap Speaker until she quits the Commons at the next election, said: "We have got to restore the reputation of the House of Commons with the public and that means somebody who can connect with the public, which I believe I can do very well."
Sir Alan Beith said he wanted to "lead a process of openness and reform". His supporters believe that if he can survive until the last round of voting, he could receive enough support from the Conservatives to defeat Mr Bercow. Some Labour MPs say that they could live with Sir Alan winning the race.
His supporters are hoping that Sir Menzies will not split the Lib Dem vote. Though Sir Menzies ran at the last Speaker election in 2000, some within his party believe his unhappy spell as leader has undermined his suitability to oversee the running of Parliament. "I'm not sure this is the right job for him," one said. "He should concentrate on his foreign affairs work."
The contenders: Simon Carr's verdict
Ann Widdecombe, 61
The best-known female Tory MP, who is quitting at the next election, is standing an interim candidate to begin the process of reform. Has the charisma and personality to make an impact with the public.
Carr's verdict: Hogarth's first choice. Great personal authority, full of character. Voice like a crate of breaking glass. They didn't elect Gwynneth Dunwoody, they won't elect Ann Dunwiddey
Margaret Beckett, 66
Served as minister under four Labour PMs, rising to become Tony Blair's Foreign Secretary. Would command authority and respect, but dragged into expenses scandal over claims for pot plants.
Carr's verdict: As Leader of the House she was too loyal to say anything interesting. But that was then. Intelligent, brisk, firm, with voice and eye of command. Character? Solid. Not without a distant sense of humour (the only sort suitable for a Speaker).
Parmjit Dhanda, 37
Audacious bid from the Labour MP for Gloucester having only been in the Commons since 2001. Three years as a minister before being dropped by Gordon Brown.
Carr's verdict: The Speaker should be "the interface between Parliament and modern Britain", he says, and should make Parliament more representative of Britain as a whole. Also that he was spurred to run by the success of the BNP. All well and good, but not exactly speakerly.
Sir Michael Lord, 70
The Tory MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich has been a deputy Speaker for 12 years. Right-wing and Eurosceptic in outlook. Some colleagues believe he has faltered by launching his campaign too late.
Carr's verdict: Likeable, good temperament, pleasant, even tempered but lacking a little natural authority and possibly not quite clever enough for the position. Lacks novelty (what a fallen world we live in).
John Bercow, 46
Former Tory frontbencher was first to get campaign off the ground, campaigning for Commons reform. Will attract more support from Labour MPs than Tories.
Carr's verdict: Can't be said to represent the whole House, his long campaign for Labour votes having alienated his own side. When chairing Public Bill committees, clearly lacks even-handedness. Artificial way of speaking. Two-thirds of Labour will vote for him, but Beckett should win the run-off.
Sir Alan Beith, 66
The longest-serving Liberal Democrat MP and a former deputy leader of the party. Currently a select committee chairman, he has a detailed knowledge of Commons procedure.
Carr's verdict: No. Perfectly fine fellow, but no.
Richard Shepherd, 66
The Tory MP for Aldridge-Brownhills is a long-standing advocate for modernising Parliament. Regarded as a maverick by many colleagues – it's not clear whether this will count for or against him.
Carr's verdict: One of the standard-bearers of the old sense of liberty and the ancient right of Parliament. Voice gives way at moments of high drama. Not obviously suited to the drudgery of running the chamber.
Sir Patrick Cormack, 70
Veteran centre-left Conservative, his party's longest-serving MP. Critics accuse him of pomposity; he makes no secret of his love of the Commons. Ran for the post nine years ago.
Carr's verdict: Very solid, fluent speaker, and most attentive to the House. Speaks without notes. Independent-minded, brave even. A stranger to the gym. The most parliamentary of the contenders. Probably the most deserving and could have won in an open ballot.
Sir Alan Haselhurst, 71
A current deputy Speaker who is seen by many backbenchers as the natural successor to Michael Martin. But the Tory MP for Saffron Walden faced embarrassment when he was forced to repay £12,000 he claimed for gardening expenses.
Carr's verdict: But for his gardening claims would be the winner. Quick, calm, modest, and the most experienced of the contenders, if that matters. Not too old, whatever people say. The best deputy.
Sir George Young, 68
Former Defence Secretary widely respected across the parties. Was a front-runner to become Speaker nine years ago, but lost out to Michael Martin because of the Labour bloc vote.
Carr's verdict: Tall, clever, long-serving mechanic in the administrative machinery of the Commons. But he'd be the third member of a Holy Trinity of Etonians (after Cameron and Boris). A problem for class-conscious voters. Perhaps a little institutionalised.