MPs cast envious eyes on Speaker Betty's chair

No one wants the job - or, at least, will publicly admit to wanting it. As Bernard (now Lord) Weatherill once said of the role of Speaker it is "one of the jobs that, if you want it, you will never get it - and if you're seen to want it, you will certainly never get it".

With rising expectations at Westminster that the current occupant of the Speaker's Chair, Betty Boothroyd, plans to retire at the next election, senior backbenchers are vying to take her place - even though the successful candidate will still put on the traditional show of resistance and have to be "dragged" into the Chair on election.

With luxurious grace and favour accommodation in the House of Commons, high prestige and profile, the chance to take the Speaker's Chair is seen as a fitting twilight to an MP's career, particularly when ministerial office has proved elusive.

Tony Blair is understood to be keen to prevent the powerful position being handed, according to convention, to a Tory. The Prime Minister is backed by senior Labour MPs, who are mounting a series of behind-the-scenes campaigns and counter campaigns to try to block moves to install either Sir George Young, the shadow Leader of the Commons, or Sir Alan Haselhurst, currently the deputy speaker.

Sir Alan's supporters see his bid to take over from Miss Boothroyd as "the natural succession". But his hectoring manner towards backbenchers in his own party during a recent 26-hour sitting in the Commons has not helped his chances, tipping the balance - at least on the Conservative benches - in favour of Sir George.

One Tory MP said pointedly: "Sir George is decent and fair and a true Parliamentarian but he would not take the burdens of office too far, unlike some."

Labour would rather have neither. A senior Labour backbencher said: "Nothing is pre-ordained. Just because we have had Betty does not mean the next person in the Chair has to be a Conservative. And there is a groundswell of opinion against electing a Tory grandee."

Mr Blair is thought to favour a quiet bid on behalf of Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell, who pulled out of the race to become his party's leader when Paddy Ashdown stepped down last year.

But Mr Campbell may have to give way again as Lib Dem insiders report that the deputy leader, Alan Beith, is mounting a separate challenge.

One said: "It is inconceivable that they will stand against each other. At the moment I think it's fair to say that Alan has the support of the party and a claim through length of service while Ming [Mr Campbell] may well have the support of the Prime Minister."

Labour's own runners, all of whom serve in the present chairmen's panel and therefore have chalked up experience for the job, include Michael Martin, the MP for Glasgow Springburn, John McWilliam, the MP for Blaydon, and Gwyneth Dunwoody, the feisty chairman of the Commons Transport Select Committee.

"Gwyneth's campaign has certainly swung into action and there are those who'd like to see her get there," a colleague said. "But her age (Mrs Dunwoody is 68) could count against her."

Mrs Dunwoody is also likely to struggle to court ministerial support. She has been a thorn in the side of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, over his plans to part-privatise the National Air Traffic Services.

Betty Boothroyd was "dragged" to the Chair in 1992 in part by Mrs Dunwoody - and some MPs believe she may be reluctant to give it up for her former sponsor or anyone else.

"I wouldn't rule out Betty staying on," one said, "especially if they make the mistake of trying to tell her what to do. If anyone has the neck to publicly suggest she should go she's quite capable of doing exactly the opposite."

This peculiar Parliamentary beauty contest will ultimately be decided on the basis of popularity and style - will the MPs go for the "backbencher's friend" type of Speaker personified by Lord Weatherill or a "character" like Miss Boothroyd who ensures the House of Commons business goes through without descending into arcane procedural wrangles.

In a Commons with a "character" Speaker there is precious little room for any other characters. The impact of the so-called "awkward squad" would be curtailed, and the numbers of emergency statements and the like would be cut.

It will be up to the MPs to decide what kind of a Speaker and what kind of a House of Commons they want.

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