Order! The scramble to bag the cushiest chair in the House

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Indy Politics

It comes with a salary of £114,000 a year, a luxurious 19th-century home by the Thames, about three hours' work a day and lots and lots of trips abroad. There's even a fetching wig and gown to boot.

It comes with a salary of £114,000 a year, a luxurious 19th-century home by the Thames, about three hours' work a day and lots and lots of trips abroad. There's even a fetching wig and gown to boot.

As jobs go, it's easy to see why the post of Speaker of the House of Commons is so sought after.

When MPs return from their summer recess on Monday 23 October, 13 hopefuls will be vying to occupy the redoubtable Betty Boothroyd's chair.

Without question, the contest to become the 187th Speaker has been the most bitterly fought since the position was first created way back in 1376.

Michael Martin, the Deputy Speaker, Sir George Young, the former Tory minister, and Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesman, are evidently the front-runners.

But in an unprecedented show of interest in the job, the top three are being harried by a chasing pack of rival MPs who are also looking to end their careers in style.

And if the bookies have anything to do with it, Michael "Mick" Martin, MP for Glasgow Springburn, is the unassailable favourite to become the first Catholic Speaker since the Reformation.

Having been at 20-1, his odds were slashed to 2-1 early in the summer after a rash of bets were placed in the Glasgow area. William Hill has since suspended the betting for this political race.

An MP since 1979, and a deputy speaker to Miss Boothroyd, Mr Martin has been campaigning for three years for the job and has the powerful Scottish Labour MPs' lobby behind him. However, he has been even more canny in targeting young women Labour MPs, allowing them time to speak and suggesting strongly that he is in favour of modernising the Commons.

Miss Boothroyd upset many women in the House with her refusal to countenance change to the late hours and unpredictable votes, which have led many of the newer intake to quit at the next election.

Despite claims that he already has 300 out of the 658 MPs' votes in the bag, some Labour women have recently become suspicious of Mr Martin's social conservatism - particularly his record opposing abortion - and doubt his commitment to reform.

"The anxiety over Michael Martin has been crystallised by a colleague of mine who has described him as Cardinal Winning," said one woman MP.

"He has run a formidable campaign, during which all sorts of history has been airbrushed out," she added.

Lynne Jones, MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, was one of the few prepared to speak on the record: "I do not regard Michael Martin as someone with a liberal mind. We need someone who is open-minded," she said.

In the minds of many MPs, the biggest threat to Mr Martin is Sir George, who stood down as shadow Leader of the House last month to contest the speakership.

As an Eton- and Oxford-educated baronet, Sir George has been caricatured by his enemies as a "Tory toff", but his supporters point out that he has powerful experience as a Parliamentarian and a minister. Crucially, he has long advocated modernisation.

Ian Pearson, who is MP for Dudley South, said: "I think it is only right that it goes to a Tory this time. This has been the tradition, and we have a Labour majority. I hope my colleagues realise that it would only be fair."

But yet another Labour MP said: "George Young has most ability, but some Labour MPs may not be able to bring themselves to vote for a Conservative and that could be his downfall."

Mr Campbell, the other main heavyweight candidate on the list, is set to get his own "non-campaign campaign" underway next week. A Scottish lawyer, he has support from many senior political figures north of the border, including Donald Dewar, the Scottish First Minister. However, following indications from Downing Street that he would be Mr Blair's choice, his critics believe he has been fatally wounded by the black hand of Prime Ministerial preference.

Despite the importance of the speakership, it remains the case that this is the election that dare not speak its name. A lack of written rules, together with the heavy weight of convention, have combined to ensure that nobody campaigns openly for the job.

Bernard Weatherill, Miss Boothroyd's predecessor, described the difficulty succinctly: "It's one of the jobs that, if you want it, you will never get it. And if you're seen to want it, you will certainly never get it," he said.

In the inimitable lexicon of the Establishment, it has been seen as "bad form" to publish a manifesto, a list of supporters, even a CV for one of the highest-profile jobs in British politics. There will be no hustings and no secret ballot.

Instead, the first day of the next session of Parliament will see Sir Edward Heath, the 84-year-old Father of the House, sit in the Chair and follow the custom of the previous 600 years.

According to convention, Sir Edward will call a backbencher to move a motion proposing a colleague as Speaker. He will then call for an amendment to the motion which proposes a rival candidate.

A vote will be taken, allowing the House to divide. If he or she fails to win a majority, then a further amendment will be taken proposing someone else until a winner is found or the original motion taken.

In short, there will be no chance to line all the candidates up against each other and vote at the same time. Whoever is called first and second by Sir Edward is absolutely crucial.

More powerful than the Prime Minister, at least within the precincts of Parliament, the Speaker is the supreme defender of the rights of the humble backbencher against the Government, not to say Opposition frontbench, of the day.

But thanks to this bizarre twist of procedure, the very same humble backbencher has in theory absolutely no say over how the job is elected.

Last time round, things were so much simpler as there were only really two runners. Miss Boothroyd was nominated as an amendment to a motion to give the speakership to Peter Brooke, a former Cabinet minister. With a majority of 372 to 238, the first woman Speaker in history was duly delivered.

But ever since Miss Boothroyd stunned her colleagues by announcing her early departure ahead of the general election, several MPs have done their best to highlight how "ludicrous" the current system is.

Gordon Prentice, Labour MP for Pendle, has tried to shake things up by organising a hustings meeting on the morning of the Commons vote.

If there are calls for proper rules for the election, they may well fall on Sir Edward's deaf ears this time around.