The next Speaker must restore the authority of the House of Commons

The gap between the end of the party-conference season and the return of the House of Commons from its absurdly long summer recess (it began on 29 July) marks a peculiar sort of interregnum in the political calendar. This year has seen swirls of cannabis fumes being sucked into the resulting vacuum, and we have been entertained by the very strange spectacle of eight members of the Tory front bench admitting to using a Class B drug.

The gap between the end of the party-conference season and the return of the House of Commons from its absurdly long summer recess (it began on 29 July) marks a peculiar sort of interregnum in the political calendar. This year has seen swirls of cannabis fumes being sucked into the resulting vacuum, and we have been entertained by the very strange spectacle of eight members of the Tory front bench admitting to using a Class B drug.

But something equally heady is mesmerising our MPs - the choice of Speaker of the House of Commons, the only senior political post in their gift. The contest for the Speakership is almost upon us - the Commons must elect a successor to Betty Boothroyd on its return on 23 October - although you might not have guessed it from the level of debate on the topic.

Partly this is due to the rules of the game. The candidates - and there are, unusually, many of them - are discreetly canvassing support and quietly rubbishing their opponents. But, ludicrously for such an important job, they are not allowed to campaign openly. No manifestos will be published. There will be no television or radio debates between the wannabes. No newspaper articles beneath the headline "How to bring Parliament back to life" will appear. This is the most internalised and incestuous of contests, with the public as firmly shut out as Black Rod when the door to the Commons is slammed in his face during the State Opening.

This is more than a pity. For, as Betty Boothroyd put it in her valedictory speech: "The level of cynicism about Parliament and the accompanying alienation of many of the young from the democratic process is troubling." The principal task of the next Speaker, then, is clear - to reverse that process and to restore and, if possible, enhance the powers of the Commons. Central to that is to stop ministers treating it with contempt.

Time and again, Speaker Boothroyd rebuked ministers for leaking announcements before the elected representatives of the people were told about them, but to little effect. The next Speaker should use a fresh mandate and the full disciplinary powers of the office to force ministers to comply. Ideally, control of the parliamentary timetable should be turned over to the Speaker, which is almost asking for golden elephants. But more time could and should be set aside for Opposition and Private Members' business. The membership of the Select Committees must be taken out of the hands of the Whips, and their powers enhanced. If the chairmen are given responsibilities on a par with ministers, then they should also have ministerial-level salaries.

While tradition is fine, we refuse to believe that vital decisions on legislation are best made at 4 o'clock in the morning. Parliament must be put on a much more business-like footing. Modernisation of working practices, more efficient management and a move to normal office hours and shorter recesses can be delayed no longer.

Although the best person for the job should be chosen irrespective of their allegiance, we believe that a non-Labour - that is, a non-governing-party - figure is probably best placed to reassert the independence of the legislature. We will return to the relative merits of the runners. But clearly this is no time for a Gilbert and Sullivan figure to fill some comfortable sinecure. Parliament is in peril.

Comments