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Widdecombe launches bid for speaker's job

Veteran Tory MP Ann Widdecombe said today that she wanted to "restore the reputation" of the House of Commons as she bids to become the new Commons Speaker.

The 61-year-old, who said 18 months ago she was stepping down at the next general election, joined a growing list of candidates for the key Westminster job after declaring she wanted to "clean up the place".

Ms Widdecombe said she thought she would "connect very well with the public", and that the polls made her "the runaway favourite with the public".

Current Speaker Michael Martin announced his resignation last month amid widespread criticism of his handling of the MPs expenses revelations. He formally steps down on June 21, the day before a crunch Commons vote to elect the new office-holder.

Maidstone and The Weald MP Ms Widdecombe, who was first elected in 1987, is one of Westminster's most recognisable figures and well-known for her redoubtable, no-nonsense manner.

She told the BBC the Speakership would be "an enormous challenge, because we do have to get the reputation of parliament restored in time for the next election."

The former Tory Cabinet minister added: "My own retirement plans are very advanced and it's quite true that until Michael Martin resigned, this idea had just never entered my head.

"And that's why it's taken me a while to make up my mind that I would put my hat in the ring, because I wasn't entirely convinced that an interim was necessarily the right thing to do.

"But as I've talked to people, and people have responded positively, I've decided to do it."

Her fellow Tory MP Sir Patrick Cormack also announced his intention to stand for the job today.

Also mounting bids are former Labour Cabinet minister Margaret Beckett, Tory backbencher John Bercow - seen as the favourite for the role - and Labour MP Frank Field.

Sir Patrick, 70, and Member for South Staffordshire, promised to bring to the post "a robust impartiality founded on a passionate belief in parliamentary democracy and a deep love of the Palace of Westminster".

A former schoolmaster who entered Parliament in 1970, he stood unsuccessfully for the Speakership in 2000, securing 130 votes.

He said: "These are turbulent times for Parliament. Its image has been tarnished by the way in which some members have interpreted, or abused, the rules governing the payment of expenses and allowances.

"I believe that I could bring to the position of Speaker a robust impartiality founded on a passionate belief in parliamentary democracy and a deep love of the Palace of Westminster in general, and the House of Commons in particular."

Other candidates for the job include ex-minister Parmjit Dhanda, Tories Sir Michael Lord and Sir George Young, and Liberal Democrat Sir Alan Beith.

The Hansard Society is organising a hustings event for Monday, where the candidates will outline their cases.

Mr Bercow has been looking increasingly difficult to beat amid reports that senior Labour figures are ready to back him.

The Buckingham MP's chances were seen as being further boosted this week when rival Frank Field joined the unsuccessful rebellion against Gordon Brown, angering many in his own party.

Mr Field and Mrs Beckett may also suffer because tradition suggests it is the turn of an opposition party after Labour provided the past two Speakers.