Friday 19 June 2009
Johann Hari: Widdecombe would win my vote
Her politics are the polar opposite of mine. But she is the best candidate for Speaker
I am about to say something I thought I would never say. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; my stomach somersaults. Okay. Deep breath. Here goes. Vote for Ann Widdecombe.
When Ann Widdecombe first warbled into British public life at the end of the Major years, she seemed like a mutant symbol of all that had gone wrong in this country. As Home Office minister, she defended the chaining of female prisoners even as they went into labour, claiming they would otherwise waddle to freedom as their waters broke. She was dubbed "Doris Karloff", the purest face of Tory cruelty.
Widdecombe's politics are the polar opposite of mine: she believes the state should keep out of the economy but ram into people's private lives. Her fundamentalist Roman Catholicism – chosen because she thought the Church of England was insufficiently Old Testament – makes her toxically anti-feminist and anti-gay. When broadcasters want somebody to defend the nastier shores of social conservatism, they point their cameras her way.
So why do I think she is the best candidate to be Speaker of the House of Commons and custodian of our democracy today?
Widdecombe is standing down as an MP at the next election – which has to happen in the next 10 months – so she is running to be a short term Speaker with a very specific remit.
After Expensageddon, the House of Commons is viewed with only marginally more affection than a paedophile ring – and the results at the next election could be dangerous. Some 42 per cent of the electorate say they are considering a protest vote against all the main parties next time. Expect foul parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party (whose leader, Nigel Farage, calls Enoch Powell "my hero") and the British National Party to do well. Only the excellent Green Party will be the deserving beneficiaries of this rage, probably taking its first parliamentary seat in Brighton Pavilion.
Anything we can do now to ensure the MPs who ripped us off have been punished, and a decent new system of payment has been built over the wreckage, will blunt that drift to the vile fringe. To get there, we need a high profile, no-bullshit Speaker, calling out the crooks and explaining to the public how a defensible system should work.
Widdecombe is in the best position to do that. She has shown that – for all her often nasty policies – she has a form of real integrity. It's not just that she has stood against her party on important occasions, like when she opposed the fox-hunting David Cameron and his chums to say the ritualised torture of animals should be banned. No: it's that when she saw a form of corruption at the heart of her party, she stood boldly against it – and risked wrecking her own career.
When she was No.2 to Michael Howard at the Home Office, Widdecombe saw her boss try to save his own hide by destroying the career of an innocent civil servant. He was trying to escape calls for his resignation by claiming it wasn't his fault the prisons were in chaos – it was the fault of Derek Lewis, the head of the Prison Service. (This is what Jeremy Paxman famously asked Howard about 14 times.) As part of this saga, he made a number of claims that turned out to be false, shifting the blame unfairly on to Lewis.
The careerist path for Widdecombe was plain: keep your head down and look the other way. She didn't. She spoke out. When Howard was poised to become leader of her party in 1997, she warned that there was "something of the night" about him. Many people predicted her career had collapsed at that moment in a death-embrace with How-ard, but knew she had done the right thing, and that's what mattered to her.
Since driving a stake through Howard's heart, she has developed a broad reputation among the public – even those of us who think most of her beliefs are toxic – for being honest and straightforward. I am sure she would sincerely expose the corruption in the House, and use her 10 months to build an alternative way of working that would build public support again.
The Speaker doesn't have much formal power, but she has – to borrow Theodore Roosevelt's phrase about the US President – an enormous bully pulpit to name the bad and demand the good. With the public behind her – she's our clear favourite in every poll – and the hourglass running down every day on her remit, Widdecombe could play a crucial role in forcing through reform.
Too many of the other candidates seem determined to repeat Michael Martin's core mistake. He saw himself as the shop steward for backbench MPs, defending their collective interests against all comers, most notoriously by using fat sums of public cash to try to block the expenses details from coming out. But the Speaker needs to be the champion of the democratic process against all comers.
By the way, although Martin got this badly wrong, nothing justifies the torrent of snobbery directed towards him. He was dubbed "Gorbals Mick" by a few vile newspaper sketch-writers. The implications were plain: a Speaker from the Gorbals! A former manual labourer! How vulgar! How base! We all know Speakers should be from the Home Counties and speak in Received Pronunciation, don't we?
There are some other good candidates. The Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda has been seriously impressive, demanding that the power to set debates is weaned more away from the executive and the whips, and restored to the public. He has suggested taking debates out to town halls across Britain, and allowing a slice of the House of Commons debating agenda to be set by online votes of the public naming the issues they want to see discussed. If Twitter can rock the Iranian Ayatollahs and Facebook can force the Chinese Communist Party to release a rape victim for fighting back against one of its officials, surely the internet can permeate the stale air of the House of Commons?
Similarly, John Bercow has had some good suggestions. But Dhanda and Bercow will still be there in 10 months' time, when Widdecombe would stand down. Between now and then, there is an oil-slick of deep cynicism over Westminster – and the tiny determined arms of Doris Karloff are best placed to begin scrubbing it clean.
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