Wanted: an awkward man to put Mr Blair in his place

MPs need a Speaker to remind them that they have not been elected merely to be apprentice ministers
Click to follow

Ted Heath and Tony Benn have a surprising amount in common. Not only did they both enter the House of Commons half a century ago, they have both spent much of the past quarter of a century in political exile. Neither will make their peace with Thatcherism.

Ted Heath and Tony Benn have a surprising amount in common. Not only did they both enter the House of Commons half a century ago, they have both spent much of the past quarter of a century in political exile. Neither will make their peace with Thatcherism.

But they have often been in conflict, and might have another one today, their last in the Commons (Mr Benn is standing down at the General Election, while Sir Edward is under a lot of discreet pressure to join him). As Father of the House, Ted Heath is in charge of the election of the new Speaker, but it is not yet clear how he will conduct the ballot. It may be that neither the procedure nor the outcome will command general respect.

Sir Edward does have a problem. Not only are contested elections rare; there have never been so many contestants. Normally, the Speaker emerges by consensus, at most there are two candidates, in which case a ballot is easy. But with a dozen MPs likely to put their names forward, it is important to devise a system of balloting that is fair and comprehensible.

Tony Benn has called for such a ballot, but will the Grocer agree? Ted Heath has always been stubborn, curmudgeonly and self-important; these qualities have not softened with age. A man who still feels bitter, he will not easily relinquish the last remaining per- quisites of power. But this time, Tony Benn is right. This election ought to be properly conducted for it is important.

That is not widely appreciated. Once television was introduced to the Commons, the Speaker rapidly became part of the entertainment industry. Many voters assume that his or her principal duties were to wear 17th century costume and shout "Order, order", often unavailingly. But the new Speaker will have more important decisions to take than whether to wear a wig and whether to permit breast feeding in the chamber. He - it will be a man - assumes office when the House of Commons' self confidence is at a historic low. The executive takes the chamber for granted, which is why many backbenchers feel marginalised. The Commons needs a Speaker who will help it to recover its élan.

But that task may have to be postponed, especially if the long-term favourite, Michael Martin, wins the job. It had seemed certain that he would do so, largely because most Labour MPs could not bring themselves to vote for a Tory. But Mr Martin has one problem. He is a bit dim. At best, he would be a semi-competent stand in, and if he does win, he will have been the beneficiary of a mere tribal reflex.

His main rival, Sir George Young, would make a better Speaker. Courteous, affable, indeed a man without enemies, he is a lot brighter than Mr Martin. But his very amiability gives rise to doubts. Few successful Speakers have been as likeable as they seemed; most of them knew how to behave like shits when the occasion demanded. But even though he was at Eton, a good training ground, this does not seem to be true of George Young. It is not clear whether he would be tough enough to make troublemakers respect his authority, or to make the Government respect the chamber.

Moreover, he is afflicted by a further disadvantage. Tony Blair has let it be known that he supports Sir George. This was unwise of the Prime Minister. Earlier in the year, Menzies Campbell, easily the ablest of the Liberal MPs - not that there is much competition - was keen to be Speaker, and seemed to have good prospects. They then suffered an almighty blow; No 10 expressed its approval. Most MPs believe that the Speakership is a matter for them to decide, and resent diktats from on high.

Mr Campbell instantly tried to distance himself from Downing Street, without success. It is now Sir George's turn to be the victim of Mr Blair's unwelcome embraces.

Mr Blair's motives were good. He believes that Sir George is the best candidate, and also sees advantages in appearing to rise above partisanship by allowing the Tories to take their turn.

In the Labour Party, however, the PM is widely suspected of class prejudice. Mr Martin is a proletarian Scot with a heavy-industrial demeanour. He sounds like a union leader in the days when Ted Heath and Tony Benn were at their zenith: all very old Labour. Many Labour MPs think it is only natural for Mr Blair to feel more comfortable with an old Etonian baronet - and they resent the fact. The John Prescott factor could well swing the election for Michael Martin.

But all backbenchers who take their duties seriously should find a better alternative, and there is one: one Tory whom Tony Blair would never support, and who would inspire the Commons to stand up to the executive.

The 1979 Tory intake was one of the most distinguished since the war. It included John Major, the two Pattens, William Waldegrave, Robert Cranborne, Matthew Parris, plus several other ministers - and Richard Shepherd, who is as able as any of them.

Mr Shepherd has never been a minister, which is hardly surprising, since he spent 18 years systematically disendearing himself to the Tory whips. Richard Shepherd is really a Tory anarchist, and not because he is a rampant free-marketeer. He simply does not trust the processes of government. He thinks that power goes to almost all ministers' heads, leading them to make bad decisions in an atmosphere of arrogance and secrecy.

If he became Speaker, ministers would be called to account and constantly reminded of their duties to the house. Backbenchers with a grievance would receive a sympathetic hearing when they sought emergency debates; ministers who tried to hide behind the pomp of their office would be sharply censured. Speaker Shepherd would use his considerable powers to make life uncomfortable for the executive. Every Government minister would find that he had to devote far more time and energy to the Commons.

A few free spirits are attracted to Richard Shepherd, and some Tories will say longingly that they might be tempted to vote for him if only they could be certain that they would not have to form a government after the next election. But Richard Shepherd has no chance; he has been far too prominent in the awkward squad for far too long.

But if he does not become Speaker, the new Speaker still ought to try to display some of the qualities that had Mr Shepherd debarred. These days, far too many MPs who arrived at the Commons with high hopes are feeling disillusioned - and this is nothing to do with late hours or the lack of facilities for women. It is the lack of a role - or, rather, the failure to discharge a proper role.

MPs need a Speaker to remind them that they have not been elected merely to be apprentice ministers and the creatures of the whips. Although the Queen's business must be carried on, this will be done much more effectively if the Commons subjects ministers to hard questioning and to scrutiny. All ministers in all governments will find that inconvenient; that is why the Commons needs a Speaker who will force ministers to acknowledge a higher convenience.