After all the recent evidence that Parliament has been sinking into decay – from revelations about MPs' expenses to peers sanctioned for accepting cash for lobbying – could it be that we are seeing the first green shoots of political renewal? Did the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, do Parliament more of a favour than even he perhaps imagined in agreeing to step down on 21 June?
So far, more than half a dozen MPs have declared their candidacy, with another eight contenders mooted. Even if no more throw their hats into the ring before Mr Martin takes his leave, MPs will still have an unusually wide selection of candidates to choose from.
Labour MPs wanting a maverick who might discomfit the Conservatives need look no further than John Bercow on the opposite side of the aisle. Tories of a similar disposition might plump for Frank Field – who has still to declare. Either would be a loss to the backbenches, but could make a decent fist of the job. Those of a patrician tendency, who may believe that something of the dignity of the job has been missing since Mr Martin took over, need look no further than Sir Patrick Cormack, or Sir George Young, if he decides to stand.
In Parmjit Dhanda, those impatient with the old boys' club might have found their man. He is unlikely to top the vote, but good on him for putting himself forward. The veteran Liberal Democrat, Sir Alan Beith, presents a reliable and safely neutral choice. Margaret Beckett, following her departure from government, has put herself in the running, as – relatively late – has Ann Widdecombe, who may be regretting her earlier decision to retire at the next election.
The range of candidates is proof positive that there is life in the old mother of Parliaments yet. There will be a real contest to be the next Speaker, even though – in the open – the campaign will last only as long as it takes the candidates to present their case to their fellow MPs in the hours after Mr Martin's resignation takes effect. That, for the first time, the voting will be by secret ballot and not subject to party whip, should mean that the person elected is the best one for the job, not the one most acceptable on party political grounds.
There are times when it is a pity to bid farewell to an established way of doing things. Parliament boasts positions and procedures whose abolition would impoverish the institution. But the old mechanism for electing the Speaker is not one of them. Michael Martin may have been more maligned than was just, but much about his tenure reflected the problems that arise when a formal framework loses its content. The shouted challenges that marked the eve of his resignation exposed an institution already bereft of its authority.
Restoring that authority will be the first task for the new Speaker. And the new election process should play a big part here. But so will the way Mr Martin's successor handles Parliament, both when he or she is in the public eye, and, perhaps even more, in the organisational aspects of the job. Both the current weakness of the Government and the Prime Minister's promises to enhance the role of Parliament give the next Speaker, whoever it is, the chance not only to make a personal mark – as have distinguished past incumbents, such as George Thomas or Betty Boothroyd – but to make a significant, perhaps even historic, contribution to parliamentary and political life.Reuse content