More than ever, the MPs need a big beast as Speaker

'MPs should elect a Speaker who will stamp his or her personality on politics as memorably as any minister'
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The Independent Online

In a couple of months' time, the next holder of an office central to British democracy will be elected by one of the unfairest, most unorthodox, barking-mad systems ever devised by grown-up people. The method by which the House of Commons chooses its presiding officer is just about as inimical to its own interests as a modern institution as it is possible to get.

In a couple of months' time, the next holder of an office central to British democracy will be elected by one of the unfairest, most unorthodox, barking-mad systems ever devised by grown-up people. The method by which the House of Commons chooses its presiding officer is just about as inimical to its own interests as a modern institution as it is possible to get.

Bear with me. For tedious as the detail may be, it has a fiendish illogicality which Lewis Carroll at his most imaginative would have savoured. When parliament resumes in October, Sir Edward Heath, as the most senior member of the Commons, will choose one of the MPs proposing the various candidates to the Speakership to stake his man - or woman's - claim in the form of a motion, to which they and the candidate will speak. There will, however be no vote at this stage.

Then Sir Edward will choose another proposer and the second candidate will similarly be praised. This time, however, there will be a vote. Taking the precedent of the last Speakership election, if a majority of MPs, by accident or design, vote decisively for the second candidate, then it's all over. It doesn't matter if further down the list is the platonic ideal of a Speaker. His or her abilities don't even get discussed, much less voted on. If the vote goes against the second candidate, then the same process is adopted with the third, fourth, fifth candidates and so on, until someone eventually wins.

One of the beauties of this crazy system is that in most circumstances it is a disadvantage to be first. Nearly as bad, in fact, as being last. Because if you're first on the list, your candidacy is only voted on if and when all the other runners are defeated. And the chances of that happening are - usually - made all the more remote because there is every possibility that another candidate - let's call him or her X - will be elected by a coalition of those who actually prefer X, plus those - who might be on the government payroll - who would rather have Y but are absolutely determined to avoid that awkward cuss Z, and a crew of X's friends and neighbouring MPs who actually want Z but have decided to vote X to make sure their pal isn't embarrassed by a poor showing.

The order in which the candidates are taken is therefore extremely important. Sir Ted indicates in his memoirs, The Course of My Life, that after the 1992 election, when Betty Boothroyd became Speaker, he took the candidates in alphabetical order and therefore called Boothroyd first.

If you're confused by now, console yourselves with the thought that so is Sir Edward. Because he's wrong. He didn't take them in alphabetical order. He took Peter Brooke before Betty Boothroyd, as Hansard for 27 April 1992 clearly shows. Now it's true that because she was second, Betty Boothroyd was the first to be voted on. But that doesn't explain why Sir Edward took Peter Brooke first. For if he was taking the votes in alphabetical order then he wouldn't have put Brooke first but third. As it was, the late Sir Giles Shaw's candidacy was never even debated, because the first letter of his surname happens to be rather far down the alphabet.

Now last time round, none of this really mattered. Betty Boothroyd was the outstanding candidate, not least because she stood head and shoulders above the other Deputy Speakers. If there is a first-class Deputy Speaker, it is natural to pick him or her. Ms Boothroyd would surely have won - and deservedly so - under any system under which the election operated.

But this time it is likely to matter a great deal. For a start, there is no obviously outstanding candidate among the deputies, all of whom - Michael Martin (Labour), Michael Lord and Sir Alan Haselhurst (Tories) - are likely to be candidates. To make it even more complicated, anything up to a dozen candidates in all could finally contest the job. It's hardly surprising that 57 MPs have signed the entirely sensible - but doubtless doomed - Early Day Motion promoted by their Labour colleague Maria Fyfe calling for a sane electoral system for the Speakership.

Not surprisingly, the summer gossip machine has been in overdrive in an attempt to narrow the field. Nobody knows for sure whether those Labour MPs now calling for a Tory - on the actually very recent precedent of turn and turn about - are doing so because they remember that the Labour George Thomas was especially obsequious to the Thatcher government. Or whether, as some MPs claim, there was heavy betting by some West of Scotland Labour MPs on Mick Martin, specifically to give him a high profile as the "bookies' favourite".

There's little doubt that some backbenchers have been doing some pretty active downspinning of the chances of the Liberal Democrat Menzies Campbell on the grounds that, since he has been in favour of closer Lib-Lab links, he must therefore be Tony Blair's choice. A PM's favour is rightly considered a bit of a mark of Cain as far as Speakers are concerned - as Margaret Thatcher deliciously found out when she vainly backed Humphrey Atkins against the robust and independent-minded Bernard Weatherill in 1983.

As it happens, this isn't fair. Campbell, a shrewd and articulate lawyer, is a good deal more independent-minded than he's made out to be - though his desire for a more family-friendly Commons will endear him to some loyalist Labour women. Moreover he belongs to the party which has for the longest time wanted real Commons reforms to make MPs a more effective check on the executive. Nor did he exactly endear himself to Blair for attacking his high-profile visit to President Putin while Chechnya was still burning and the Tory opposition remained largely silent.

But this raises a wider issue. The Commons, sliding into real danger of disrepute, is in desperate need of a figurehead of real weight, experience, judgement and presentability to preside over it, to represent it, and - at times - to confront ministers on equal terms. The job therefore requires someone who has a proven track record of wanting the Commons to stand up to government when it has to.

I can understand the liking of many commendably awkward MPs for Gwyneth Dunwoody. Though not quite the old Labour warhorse she is sometimes depicted as (she did more to promote Peter Mandelson's cause in the early 1980s than any other member of the Labour National Executive), she is one of those rightly clamouring to take the Select Committees out of the hands of the whips. But she is the same age as the now retiring Betty Boothroyd. And whether she has all the other qualities seems to me doubtful.

Instead, surely, the needs of the times point to a reasonably big - and presentable - beast. Maybe a senior Liberal Democrat such as Campbell - or just possibly his lower-profile colleague Alan Beith. Or the Tory frontbencher Sir George Young, who has been helping to drive the Tories' campaign for real Commons reform and has a strong track record of standing up to Margaret Thatcher on the poll tax. Or, most tempting of all, in the unlikely event that he will reverse his decision to stand down as an MP, Tony Benn.

If MPs can't change a lunatic electoral system, they should at least overcome it - by opting for a Speaker who will stamp his or her personality on British politics as memorably as any run-of-the-mill Cabinet minister.

* d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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