Speaker hopefuls take to the campaign trail

Labour whips are rumoured to favour Tory backbencher John Bercow

The crowded race to become the next House of Commons Speaker will hot up today, as the candidates share a platform and in a blitz of competing media appearances attempt to show they have what it takes.

Almost a dozen contenders have so far confirmed their attendance at a hustings event in Westminster, ahead of the vote a week from now. They will also be rushing to appearances on BBC radio, Newsnight and Channel 4, to win over any undecided voters.

Ann Widdecombe, the Tory MP in contention for the role, ordered party whips to "stay out" of the race yesterday after rumours emerged that Labour Party whips had been encouraging their MPs to support the frontrunner for the job, the Tory backbencher, John Bercow. "I think the whips should stay out of this. This is a House of Commons matter," she said.

Supporters of Mr Bercow have been concerned by Ms Widdecombe's shortening odds to take the job, dismissing her popularity as "trial by celebrity TV". The outgoing MP has become a familiar face to the public after appearing on reality television shows including Celebrity Fit Club.

Ms Widdecombe, now the second favourite to take the Speaker's chair, added that as an MP stepping down at the next election, she could be completely focused on forcing through radical change to clean up the Commons. "We have got to put in place really tight systems to prevent people in the future thinking they can get away with it, at the same time ensuring we don't tighten the system so much that we deter people of modest means from thinking they can ever enter Parliament," she said.

One high-profile MP rumoured as a possible replacement for Michael Martin announced yesterday that he would not be standing for the role.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, insisted that his priorities were his constituents and his chancellorship of St Andrews University. "My taste for active politics is undiminished," he said. "I value my membership of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee. I have no wish to alter that priority or to give up these interests. Accordingly I will not be a candidate in the forthcoming election for Speaker." Friends said he had been put off by the sheer number of candidates that had emerged. He had also been caught up in the expenses scandal after claiming for the services of an interior designer.

Sir George Young, the Tory chairman of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, said yesterday that if he became the next Speaker he would change the day of parliament's most eagerly anticipated event, Prime Minister's Questions, in order to free up more parliamentary time.

The next Speaker: Declared candidates

*Margaret Beckett, 66 (Lab, Derby South): Former Foreign Secretary.

*Sir Alan Beith, 66 (Lib Dem, Berwick-on-Tweed): Former deputy leader

*John Bercow, 46 (Con, Buckingham)

*Sir Patrick Cormack, 70 (Con, Staffordshire South)

*Parmjit Dhanda, 37 (Lab, Gloucester)

*Frank Field, 66 (Lab, Birkenhead).

*Sir Alan Haselhurst, 71 (Con, Saffron Walden): A deputy speaker since 1997

*Sir Michael Lord, 70 (Con, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich): deputy speaker since 1997.

*Richard Shepherd, 66 (Con, Aldridge-Brownhills): Former "Parliamentarian of the Year".

*Ann Widdecombe, 61 (Con, Maidstone and the Weald): Formerly a hard-line Home Office minister.

*Sir George Young, 67 (Con, North West Hampshire): A former Transport Secretary under John Major

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