The Speaker shouldn't be the winner of a beauty contest

Speaker Lenthall, who faced down Charles I, was hardly renowned for his focus-group appeal

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On Tuesday of next week, the day after the House of Commons has elected its new Speaker, he or she will return to the Commons and report "that I have, in your name and on your behalf, made claim by humble petition to Her Majesty to all your undoubted rights and privileges, particularly to freedom of speech, freedom from arrest and freedom of access to Her Majesty whenever occasion may require, and that the most favourable construction may be placed upon all your proceedings."

On Tuesday of next week, the day after the House of Commons has elected its new Speaker, he or she will return to the Commons and report "that I have, in your name and on your behalf, made claim by humble petition to Her Majesty to all your undoubted rights and privileges, particularly to freedom of speech, freedom from arrest and freedom of access to Her Majesty whenever occasion may require, and that the most favourable construction may be placed upon all your proceedings."

Unfortunately, many MPs appear to be far more concerned with what the new Speaker will claim on their behalf from Her Majesty's Government in the form of the right to go home at a reasonable hour and the privilege of bringing their children with them to work. But the most important rights and privileges the new Speaker should be claiming are greater powers from the Prime Minister.

So many powers vested in the Crown have not been devolved to Parliament but, known as "Crown prerogatives," are in the hands of the Prime Minister and totally unaccountable to Parliament. A Speaker who addressed these concerns would get my vote.

All the candidates who are presenting themselves to their colleagues are experienced in the ways of the Commons. No candidate has less than 17 years' membership of the House. In addition, even those MPs elected for the first time at the last general election will have had an opportunity of seeing the runners and riders at work. This contrasts sharply with the election for Speaker in 1992, when the first duty of newly elected MPs, on their arrival at Westminster, was to participate in the election of a Speaker where the candidates were unknown to most of them.

During my own time in Parliament, I participated in the choice of two Speakers. George Thomas was already in the Chair upon my arrival. When he retired there was no contest against Bernard Weatherill. Rumour had it that the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was doubtful about him. That did it for all MPs. If the Prime Minister did not want him, then as a matter of principle, we did. The Speaker belongs to MPs, not to prime ministers. Only in 1992 did I participate in an electoral contest - where the vote in support of Betty Boothroyd was so clear and overwhelming that all other candidates then gracefully withdrew.

On this occasion, I am struck by the apparent inability of the rules to cope with the larger number of candidates. It seems unfortunate that the Commons has been unable to devise a system which takes this fact into account, and we seem to be saddled with a procedure which may result in a Speaker being elected without some candidates even being allowed to submit themselves to a vote in the division lobbies. Clearly, the role of the Father of the House will be crucial. Sir Edward Heath will, no doubt, be guided by precedent and the clerks in deciding the order in which to call a proposer to nominate a candidate. The excitement and tension will mount when it comes to the order in which any amendment may be called.

Pressure is therefore mounting on Clive Soley, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and Sir Archie Hamilton, the chairman of the Conservative 1922 Committee, to consider the holding of an informal secret ballot of MPs on the morning of the contest. This would enable a shortlist of candidates to be formally presented on the order paper when the House meets later next Monday. This is a welcome way of MPs being able to express a choice unfettered by the fear of publicly voting against the favourite. I was amazed, in 1992, by the number of MPs who did not want to be seen in the division list against Miss Boothroyd for fear that they would be penalised by her in subsequent debates. Of course they need not have worried. Miss Boothroyd called me just as frequently even though I had not voted for her.

It seems to me that Members should accept that the practice of alternating the choice of Speaker from each side of the House has served the Commons well. For as long as I can remember, if there has been a Speaker from one side, then the successor has come from the alternate side. Following this precedent, it is only fair for the next Speaker to come from the Conservative side.

If Labour MPs accept this view, Sir George Young is said to be the Conservative front runner on the grounds that he was once a Cabinet minister. Somehow, though, I think MPs should consider a candidate whose years of service have been spent outside government office. I am also persuaded that a candidate from the backbenches would be more likely to stand up for those "rights" that once came from the Monarch but which are now actually in the hands of the executive. Frankly, I cannot see Sir George, who is essentially an establishment figure, standing up to the Government in any clash between Parliament and the executive.

It seems fantastic that some MPs only want to know what a new Speaker would do for them in terms of family- friendly hours. But these are matters for the Commons as a whole. Then there is the implied suggestion that candidate X is more popular than candidate Y, and so a choice will be made on the basis of a popularity contest. The best Speakers are not those who are universally "popular". Speaker Lenthall, who faced down Charles I, and Speaker Peel - "the mere rustle of his robe could quell a noisy chamber" - were hardly renowned for their focus-group appeal.

I would have thought, therefore, that a few considerations relating to competence, even-handedness, the ability to control the House during moments of tension and, above all, a willingness to make sure that the executive recognises its obligations to Parliament, should be uppermost in the minds of MPs when choosing their new Speaker.

On this basis, the choice comes down to the likes of Sir Patrick Cormack, Nicholas Winterton or John Butterfill, who also have years of service on the Speaker's panel of committee chairmen. They are not billed by the Press as the immediate front-runners and for that reason alone they should commend themselves to MPs. I'm going for Sir Patrick, who was a particularly strong chairman of the Speaker's Panel. He loves Parliament but has a healthy scepticism of the executive, whether Labour or Conservative.

As one who led the Conservative fight against the poll tax in the 1980s, he has a natural sympathy with MPs who regard their first duty as testing the arguments of the executive. Sir Patrick's biggest advantages are (a) he does not seek a bogus "popularity", and (b) he is actually competent. By contrast, Michael Martin, the Labour front-runner, has been glad-handing his way around the Labour conference and is undoubtedly "popular". But for this reason alone, I believe he disqualifies himself.

On the one occasion before the recess when, as a Deputy Speaker he presided over a controversial ministerial statement on the NHS, he muffed it. Sir Patrick would have no favourites. His decisions would be based on what is right and not on what is popular - the worst basis to elect a Speaker.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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