Peers break with tradition to choose first Lord Speaker

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Indy Politics

With the candidates pledging to do little, or in one case, nothing, the election of a Speaker to oversee the House of Lords is one of the strangest in British political history.

Peers filed slowly into the unfamiliar surroundings of the voting booths set up in one of the grandest rooms of the Palace of Westminster yesterday to take part in the first ballot of its kind for nearly 1,000 years.

Nine peers were standing in the ballot to elect the newly created post of Lord Speaker to replace the Lord Chancellor, who has for centuries sat on the Woolsack to preside over the debates and votes of the second chamber.

Polls closed at 8pm last night, but the result will not be announced until the new Lord Speaker takes his or her seat next Tuesday. Officials said that the Queen must be informed of the appointment.

With their manifestos limited to 75 words and open campaigning firmly frowned upon, the election was always going to be in the genteel style for which the House of Lords is known. Candidates pledged to maintain the self regulation of the Lords and do nothing to change its character. The job itself is largely ceremonial, with none of the rough and tumble that the Speaker of the Commons has to endure.

Unlike the Commons, where the Speaker, Michael Martin, who has to chair debates, rule on parliamentary procedure and generally hold the ring between warring parties, the new Speaker of the Lords will "assist, but not rule".

Nevertheless, at stake is what promises to be one of the most prestigious jobs in British public life, with a £101,668 a year salary, an allowance of £33,990 and ceremonial black and gold robes worth about £10,000.

He or she will sit on the Woolsack for about three hours a day but, like the Lord Chancellor, will not keep the Lords in order. However, they will have a formal role in recalling parliament and will speak on ceremonial occasions.

Lord Redesdale, the youngest hereditary peer, said: "I pledge as Speaker I would do as little as possible in the chamber, apart from sitting on the Woolsack. Outside the chamber, I would resist attempts to increase the power of the Speaker."

Baroness Fookes, the Conservative life peer, said: "The Lord Speaker must be the servant of the house and not its master; this best sums up what I believe the House wants [and] to which I wholeheartedly subscribe."

Baroness Hayman, the former Labour minister, pledged to be "an energetic, diplomatic and persuasive ambassador for the House, its value and its values".

Yesterday, a slow trickle of peers walked past a lone tail-coated doorkeeper into the scarlet-walled splendour of the Moses Room, just off the ornate Peers' Lobby in the House of lords, to cast their votes. The room, decorated in striking Pugin wallpaper, was converted into a polling station, with parliamentary officials holding the electoral roll of about 700 peers, and a line of impromptu voting booths.

For a venerable institution dating back to the 11th century and with an electorate banned by statute from voting in Parliamentary elections, peers were faced with a very modern voting system, casting a vote for their first or second preference - if no candidate gains an overall majority, the second preferences will determine the victor.

But not all were happy at their new electoral power. Lord Tebbit, the former Tory cabinet minister, was among peers who voted before the start of business yesterday. He said: "There was no reason to change the system that has worked well for several hundred years. This was an unnecessary election."

The role

The first Lord Chancellor was Herfast, who joined William the Conqueror during the Norman invasion and was given the post in 1069. But the first Lord Chancellor to have a formal role as speaker of the House of Lords was Edward Hyde, the first Earl of Clarendon, who became Lord Chancellor to Charles II in 1658, after helping to run the government of Charles I in Oxford during the Civil War. In 1660, it was formally recognised that the Lord Chancellor would preside over proceedings in the Lords. They have done so until the present day.