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Steve Richards: Parallel paths to the Speaker's chair

The Tory John Bercow and Labour's Frank Field are mirror images of each other

The Conservatives' John Bercow and Labour's Frank Field are two of the front runners in the race to become the next Speaker. They are also the mirror image of each other. It is mainly Conservative MPs who support Field and their Labour counterparts who back Bercow. Quite a few Conservatives loathe Bercow, while some Labour MPs fume against Field. The fluidity of their support and the unorthodox nature of their careers make them the odd couple in British politics. They shine light on the bewildered confusion that lurks within both the bigger political parties.

Bercow began on the right of British politics, being one of the more militant members of the Federation of Conservative Students, an organisation that made Lord Tebbit seem something of a reckless progressive. But since 1997, he has been on one of those interesting political journeys that made him a so-called moderniser long before David Cameron.

By 2001 Bercow was arguing for social tolerance towards gay couples and single parents, and for increased public spending rather than tax cuts. More gradually he also became pro-European. Recently he voted in favour of Harriet Harman's Equality Bill.

After 2005 Bercow had some hopes that Cameron would join him in the modernisers' cause. On the whole though, Bercow has been disappointed. He sees a tonal change from the Conservative leadership in recent years rather than much of substance. The aspirant Speaker had hoped Cameron would give him enough ammunition to convert his Labour supporting wife to the Tory cause. She is not converted.

The gap between Bercow and the Tory leadership highlights the limits of Cameron's modernising project. Bercow is not much happier than he was when Michael Howard was leader. Conversely, Bercow is viewed with wary disdain by some of his colleagues. The last thing they need is an MP occasionally voting with Labour as the government implements what he accepts as fairer and more progressive policies.

Field has had an even more tempestuous relationship with Gordon Brown. Like Bercow in relation to Cameron, Field once had high hopes of Brown. Before the 1997 election he told me that he thought Brown would prove to be a great reforming Chancellor in the same league as Lloyd George. More recently he has given interviews implying that Brown is bonkers. The tensions between them are heightened because they both came into politics above all to address poverty, their common passion. But Brown has always regarded Field's proposals for welfare reform as unaffordable and unrealistic.

Field's brief ministerial career highlighted the narrow limits of New Labour's ambitions. Tony Blair posed as a radical on welfare reform, but was only comfortable with the symbolism of boldness. In 1997 he made Field a junior minister, but also a privy councillor. Blair made much of this honour, pointing out that the title was usually only awarded to cabinet ministers and showed how serious he was about welfare reform. However, Blair had never studied the details of Field's proposals. When he realised that, in the short term at least, Field's proposals would involve a significant increase in public spending he ran a mile. Field was sacked within a year.

Field has been at odds with the leadership, and especially Brown, ever since. He has called for referendums on Europe, where he takes a more sceptical stance, and continues to press for radical solutions to welfare. The Conservative leadership is much keener on him and often cite his ideas in interviews.

Although Bercow and Field have spent much of their careers on the backbenches they have wielded more influence than many who opt for the disciplined orthodoxies of the front bench. The Schools secretary, Ed Balls, gave Bercow a project to review policies for kids with special needs. Partly Balls hoped to cause political mischief in recruiting Bercow in the same way Cameron seeks to cause trouble when he praises Field. Nonetheless Bercow is adamant that he was allowed to get on with the job and that his role was not merely cosmetic. His proposals are having a practical impact. Since 1997 no other Tory has implemented a national policy in such a direct way.

Field has had a bigger impact on government policy. He led the revolt against the calamitous abolition of the 10p tax rate. In effect, he persuaded Brown to re-write his final budget as Chancellor. From the backbenches the former minister became a semi Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Neither Bercow nor Field act only from the purest of motives. Thwarted ambition plays its part. Bercow was upset when Michael Howard sacked him from the shadow cabinet and had hopes that Cameron would promote him as a pioneering moderniser. Instead he has languished on the backbenches. Field had hoped that his brief ministerial career might be revived. Tony Blair told him he would bring him back, but never did. Some of his anger against Brown is frustration at his own limited career.

Sensing disillusionment, both sides have sought to woo the disenchanted MPs. The Tories have approached Field. Senior ministers have held conversations with Bercow. Defections are one of the most potent symbols in British politics. They are also hard to pull off. For lots of reasons MPs are reluctant to leave their tribe. They include more discreet reasons such as the relationship with their local parties and electorates.

Bercow and Field instead seek a new career path away from party politics. Bercow told me three years ago that he wanted the post and it is one reason why, in my view, his candidacy should be taken seriously. He has given this job a lot of thought and has wanted it long before the current sudden vacancy arose.

But while the careers of Bercow and Field highlight the flaws of their respective leaderships, they also show the limited paths available to those that move away from their parties. Frontbenchers who toe the line with more dexterity can yearn at least about being a leading cabinet minister or perhaps a leader. Bercow and Field are reduced to dreaming about being Speaker, a post that will prevent them from expressing their strongly held views and, more importantly, from implementing the policies that arise from them.