Michael Martin, who stands down as Speaker today, is in last-minute discussions for a House of Lords seat, it emerged last night.
Mr Martin, who has yet to resign officially as an MP, could be given a peerage as part of his deal for an early exit from the Commons. The move would be controversial because his departure as Speaker was clouded by the row over reform of Parliament and expenses. It is set to overshadow tomorrow's contest to elect his successor, which by last night was becoming mired in bitter party politics.
The backstage machinations emerged as Mr Martin told The Observer that he was the victim of snobs – and claimed he would have survived if he had fought for his job.
In another development, Tom Watson, one of Gordon Brown's closest political allies, says today that Westminster reform must include the abolition of the parliamentary lobby, the group of accredited journalists with special access to areas of Parliament and briefings by Downing Street.
Mr Watson, who resigned as minister for digital engagement at the reshuffle, backs a call by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, for a ban on anonymous briefings to lobby journalists, and calls for internet bloggers to be given the same access to Westminster as the lobby. In his article, below, Mr Watson, who was one of the first MPs to write a blog, says: "All candidates for the speakership declare that Parliament should be more transparent and accountable...
"Crack open the lobby cartel. Let in a new generation of online commentators. Share access to lobby briefings with a more diverse group of reporters. Rip up the lobby rules and put all briefings on the record. Do this, and a new Speaker can genuinely be part of a new era of accountability."
The contest for Speaker looked to be close-run, with Margaret Beckett and John Bercow the favourites. But further expenses revelations in The Sunday Telegraph today threaten to undermine the campaigns of all candidates.
Mrs Beckett, who left the Cabinet earlier this month, overtook Mr Bercow in the betting this weekend after a surge of support among Labour MPs. Tory MP Mr Bercow had strong backing from many Labour members, but a secret shadow whipping operation was under way to convince backbenchers they should support a member of their own party. Mr Bercow was also said to be subject to an ABB ("Anything But Bercow") campaign by fellow Tories who dislike him.
Mrs Beckett's campaign may be damaged by reports that she voted against banning claims for furniture and the introduction of external audits of expenses. Sir George Young, an Old Etonian, was third favourite, but could win support from those who find both frontrunners divisive. Mr Martin announced his resignation as Speaker last month but his term officially ends today; the new Speaker will be elected tomorrow. At the time of his resignation he said he would also stand down as MP for Glasgow North East – meaning he would forgo the £64,000 "golden parachute" for MPs who depart at a general election. MPs who stand down mid-Parliament must apply for an arcane post such as crown steward of the Chiltern Hundreds to trigger a by-election. The discussions involving Mr Martin are believed to be around him taking a peerage rather than the Chiltern Hundreds – meaning he would be in line for the expenses awarded to peers.
The running order
Margaret Beckett, 66 (Labour)
MP for Derby South for 35 years, veteran of Blair and Brown Cabinets. Appointed Foreign Secretary in 2006, but demoted under Gordon Brown, and left Cabinet this month. Jeered on Question Time over expenses. A £600 claim for hanging baskets and pot plants rejected. Some think she is too associated with the Government to be independent.
John Bercow, 46 (Con)
MP for Buckingham for 12 years, former shadow minister. Headed review of special needs on behalf of government, fuelling rumours he could defect. Has support of Labour MPs, but few Tories after switching from right to centre. Billed himself as "ambassador" for Parliament. Repaid £1,470.62 in expenses. Was early favourite but has lost ground to Beckett.
Sir George Young, 67 (Con)
MP for 35 years, including North West Hampshire since 1997. Transport Secretary under John Major, currently chairman of Parliament's standards committee. Relatively uncontroversial expenses claims include maximum second home allowance for past two years. Old Etonian, but position as head of MPs' anti-sleaze watchdog could see him emerge as consensus candidate.
Ann Widdecombe, 61 (Con)
MP for Maidstone and the Weald for 22 years. Would be interim Speaker until election. Does not claim for second home.
Sir Alan Beith, 66 (LD)
MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed for 36 years. Claimed £117,000 second home allowance. Only Lib Dem candidate.
Sir Alan Haselhurst, 71 (Con)
MP for 36 years (Saffron Walden since 1977). Deputy Speaker since 1997. Has repaid £12,000 of gardening bills. A long shot.
Sir Patrick Cormack, 70 (Con)
MP for Staffordshire South for 39 years. Claimed £40 for kitchen knives. Long service and love of tradition will please old school but not reformers.
Parmjit Dhanda, 37 (Lab)
Gloucester MP for eight years; former junior minister. Spent nearly £2,000 on furniture in 2006-7. Youngest candidate.
Richard Shepherd, 66 (Con)
MP for Aldridge Brownhills for 30 years. Last year claimed £2,370 for gardening. The "backbencher's backbencher".
Sir Michael Lord, 70 (Con)
MP for Central Suffolk for 26 years. Claimed more than £8,000 for gardening. Deputy speaker for 12 years.
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