Grumpy Ted was right about how to pick the Speaker

The principal objections to Sir Edward among the Conservatives were that he had mistimed the first election of 1974, had lost both elections of that year and - above all - was always rude.
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It was a warm summer's evening a few years ago, the grass was green and the wine was sploshing, when a Tory MP asked me whether I had met his companion in conversation, Sir Edward Heath. I said I had. Sir Edward assented.

It was a warm summer's evening a few years ago, the grass was green and the wine was sploshing, when a Tory MP asked me whether I had met his companion in conversation, Sir Edward Heath. I said I had. Sir Edward assented.

"He hates me," he said.

I said nothing and then, like the man from the People - in Fleet Street tradition, by the way, it is not the man from the News of the World but from the People - made my excuses and left, not the party, but that particular small group.

Our paths had first crossed on an early-autumn Saturday in the late 1960s when the radio programme The World this Weekend sent me down to Broadstairs in Kent to interview him just before the Conservative conference. I should explain that at this time there was an annual ritual which began with the story and accompanying headline: "Heath's Position Under Threat."

Mr Heath, as he then was, would then journey to Blackpool or Brighton (Bournemouth had not been discovered in those days) and, like Harold Wilson at the Labour conference, deliver not one but two speeches. Both would be received with lengthy standing ovations. Indeed, it was the need, as the party managers of that time saw it, artificially to pump up the leader's position which was the historic origin of a tedious form of applause that is now common form. The political correspondents would duly write: "Tory leader Ted Heath yesterday confounded his critics with a barnstorming performance that left the party faithful asking for more of the same..." This Phoenix-from-the-ashes story would be repeated every year till Sir Edward unexpectedly won the 1970 election.

Just before I went to see him, on the previous evening, the Friday, he had been blacked out of a David Frost programme after an electrician had pulled the plug in the course of an industrial dispute, then more common than they are now. I said I was very sorry it had happened. I hoped he would now be able to say some of the things he would have said on television.

"That's an extremely insulting remark," Sir Edward said.

I was perplexed, quite unable to understand why he had taken exception to my friendly observation, which had been intended to put him at his ease, for he was clearly upset by the spectacle of microphones being set up on the dining-room table of his father's bungalow.

"I'm terribly sorry, but I can't see how that was insulting."

"The clear implication of your remark was that the entire programme had been rigged in advance."

"That wasn't the implication at all."

"Oh yes it was. What other meaning could it have?"

We proceeded to the interview, of which I can now remember nothing. Shortly afterwards I was lunching with Iain Macleod and related to him what had happened. He laughed and laughed. I had not seen him so happy since he told the story in the House of Commons about the Chinese general who, on his conversion to Christianity, had baptised his troops with a hosepipe.

"Typical Ted," he said, "typical. You know what it was? He thought he was making a joke."

The principal objections to Sir Edward among the Conservatives of 1974-75 were that he had mistimed the first election of 1974, had lost both elections of that year and - above all - was always rude.

"So you're here, are you?" he said to the late Peter Jenkins, then of the Guardian, espying him about his reporting tasks in a Hampstead committee room during the first 1974 campaign.

He noticed a table of refreshments at the far end of the room.

"So this is where we get the sandwiches, is it?" he said, before moving rapidly in their direction.

Stories of his brusqueness, his gaucheness, his lack of small or, indeed, any talk, his sheer bad manners - omitting to stand up, neglecting to offer a drink, failing to ask about his interlocutor's most pressing concerns - were famous at Westminster. It was one of these episodes which led indirectly to his succession by Margaret Thatcher. Airey Neave had suffered a heart attack as a junior minister in a previous Conservative government. Sir Edward had said to him:

"So that's the end of your political career then."

In 1975 Neave was delighted to be Lady Thatcher's successful campaign manager. He may well have hated Sir Edward. But I do not hate him. There are few people I do hate, and Sir Edward is certainly not among them. Indeed, I am prepared not only to defend but also to praise his conduct in presiding over the election of Mr Speaker Martin last Monday. It was not his fault that there were so many candidates or - though this is more arguable - that prior arrangements to deal with them had not been made.

This is, I realise, a minority position. Most of my colleagues thought he mishandled the event. Some of them have even gone so far as to call it "shambolic". It was nothing of the kind. Sir Edward had decided to stick to the old procedure. In this he had been guided by the Clerks. Until quite recently it was the Clerk and not the Father of the House who supervised the election. In my opinion this was a better arrangement. Clerks and similar people always prefer to go by precedent. They like a stable and ordered parliamentary universe, which is not a preference to be derided.

Sir Edward had the wit to pick the likely winner first - which admittedly did not require X-ray vision on his part - and then to allow the other candidates to have a go at him, much as in the boxing booths of South-west Wales, in the days before the First World War, challengers would line up for a fight with the "pro". Here the pro beat off successive challenges convincingly, though he did not defeat Sir George Young by winning an absolute majority of members of the Commons, which would have required 330 votes or more rather than the 317 he in fact obtained.

Yet such was the frightening strength of Old Labour which was on display, combined with a surprising turnout in his favour by New Labour women, that Mr Michael Martin is certainly the choice of the majority of the House. Though Tories flinch and sketchwriters sneer, he would have won any election by whichever means it had been conducted.

Even so, I would rather have had an exhaustive ballot, with the bottom candidate or candidates dropping out till one of them reached over 50 per cent of the vote. This would have been better than the alternative vote, with members marking their ballot papers 1, 2, 3 ... up to 12, if they wanted to, for Mr John Butterfill was the only candidate possessing the sense and grace to drop out. I should have preferred either of these systems to the one proposed by Mr Tony Benn.

But any system would have had to be considered properly by the Commons beforehand. This they had been unable to do owing to the timing of Miss Betty Boothroyd's resignation. Whichever system had been chosen, the election would still have taken a long time, as it did on Monday. There would still have had to be at least 24 speeches proposing and seconding the candidates. So fair play and a happy retirement for Ted Heath!

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