Johann Hari: Widdecombe would win my vote

Her politics are the polar opposite of mine. But she is the best candidate for Speaker

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam