Race for Speaker's chair turns dirty as rivals round on Bercow

Tory frontrunner is so unpopular with his own MPs some may back Labour's Margaret Beckett in next week's vote

The race to become Commons Speaker turned ugly as rival candidates doubted each other's fitness to fill the post and a dirty tricks campaign designed to stop the frontrunner gathered pace.

With six days to go until the contest to succeed Michael Martin, the 10 declared candidates faced each other publicly for the first time yesterday in a hustings. Several took a swipe at the bookmakers' favourite, the 46-year-old Tory MP John Bercow, by stressing that long experience of the Commons was the most important qualification for filling the Speaker's chair.

Mr Bercow's campaign got off to the fastest start and he is thought to be backed by up to 100 Labour MPs attracted by his frequent criticism of the Tory leadership. But he is struggling to gain much support from his own side amid signs that some Conservative MPs are swinging behind an "anyone but Bercow" campaign.

That could benefit Tories Ann Widdecombe, Sir Alan Haselhurst or Sir George Young. Some Tories are privately threatening to back the former Labour cabinet minister Margaret Beckett.

Mr Bercow has been hit this week by a murmuring campaign about his student past – he was an active member of the far-right Monday Club – and suggestions he could face an attempt to remove him from the Speakership after the next election.

But Martin Salter, the Labour MP organising Mr Bercow's campaign, said last night: "This is a sign of desperation. Anonymous briefings and mud-slinging is precisely what is bringing parliament into disrepute."

In yesterday's hustings meeting, Mr Bercow argued that the next Speaker should not be a little-known Westminster figure "shrouded in mystery", but a non-partisan ambassador for the Commons who was prepared to get out into the country.

But Sir George, a former cabinet minister, and Sir Alan, the current Deputy Speaker, both insisted that detailed knowledge of the Commons was a prerequisite for doing the job.

Sir George, who could prove to be Mr Bercow's closest challenger, said: "This debate is as much about personalities as policy. We need someone with experience with the role and who has support on both sides of the House." Sir Alan, 71, also stressed his long service in Parliament, arguing that the Commons needed a "steady hand on the tiller".

Mr Bercow, who described himself as a "clean break candidate", hit back at claims that he lacked the experience to become Speaker. He said his rivals were attempting to use the issue as a "euphemism" for long service and "great age".

Miss Widdecombe, who is standing as an interim candidate because she is stepping down at the election, appears to be achieving momentum. She said any candidate without cross-party support should not be in the race. She also implied that several of her rivals were too obscure to successfully lead a high-profile drive to rebuild confidence in the Commons following the expenses scandal. She told the hustings, which was organised by the Hansard Society: "We need to have someone who possesses some of the vulgar attributes that can connect with the public."

The former Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Sir Alan Beith, criticised the concept of a stop-gap candidate such as Miss Widdecombe. He said: "The Speaker needs to be able to hold on to the reins for four or five years... I will be able to do that."

Mrs Beckett is expected to be the only Labour candidate in the field, with the Gloucester MP Parmjit Dhanda struggling to receive sufficient nominations to get on the ballot paper. The former social security minister Frank Field has abandoned his Speakership ambitions.

Mrs Beckett countered suggestions that she should be discounted because she would be the third Labour Speaker in succession and that she would be too partisan.

Her supporters also argue that there have been eight Conservative speakers in the last century and only four from Labour ranks.

The veteran Tory Sir Patrick Cormack said he backed the creation of an independent body to monitor MPs' expenses but questioned whether "the elected representatives of the UK should be subject to an appointed quango".

Sir Michael Lord, another sitting Deputy Speaker, said nobody knew better than him the "frustrations of backbenchers" and that the Government must stop making significant announcements outside Westminster.

The Tory backbencher Richard Shepherd said the standing orders of Parliament needed to be changed so that the Government no longer controlled the "rules by which the game is played".

Mr Dhanda, a Labour MP and at 37 the youngest candidate, insisted the public no longer wanted the "language of Erskine May" and said voters themselves should be able to nominate issues for discussion in parliament. He said he would move elements of parliament into the country.

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