Madam Speaker will survive the whispers

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The Independent Online
SENIOR parliamentarians are becoming worried about what they fear is a ministerial whispering-campaign against Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker. Criticism about her handling of Commons business and her connections with Cyprus have been circulating for a fortnight. But the real story may have more to do with struggling, frustrated ministers.

Some background: Mrs Boothroyd's attempt to silence Michael Mates on 29 June, when he was making his controversial allegations about the Serious Fraud Office, and her eventual decision to let him continue, produced some of the worst press coverage a modern Speaker has endured. Senior ministers were among her strongest private critics. A piece in the London Evening Standard this week spoke of 'concern among ministers, including the Prime Minister' about her handling of the case and stated: 'A meeting was held to discuss this subject.' Newspaper stories also allege that Mrs Boothroyd was taking a holiday to open a hotel in Cyprus, and criticise her for accepting what they suggest is an all-expenses-paid junket.

But there is another side to both stories, and the record needs to be put straight. First, there was a good, but so far unrevealed, reason for Mrs Boothroyd's anger and embarrassment when she was confronted by Mr Mates's resignation speech. She had, her friends say, spent an hour that day trying to contact him, and finally reached him by phone 45 minutes or so before the day's session started.

She reminded the former minister in the strongest terms of the House's sub judice rule and asked him to make sure that he said nothing that might prejudice a trial. He promised and read her a short extract from his text, beginning: 'I do not know whether Mr Asil Nadir is innocent or guilty . . . That is for the courts . . .'

But Mr Mates's statement went further and has probably made it difficult for Mr Nadir to be convicted. Mr Mates has a strong argument that his allegations about the SFO were of overriding importance, but the point is that Mrs Boothroyd thought she had a deal, and was gobsmacked when Mr Mates ambushed her. He later said he would have shown her his notes if asked. But she thought, I repeat, she already had a deal.

What about the Cypriot hotel story? Mrs Boothroyd declines publicly to discuss it, but is said to be very hurt. Senior MPs say unequivocally that she is paying for all aspects of a forthcoming holiday herself. She is opening a hotel in southern Cyprus, not in Turkish-controlled Cyprus, where Mr Nadir is staying. She has been visiting that area for years and the opening was a personal favour agreed before she became Speaker.

Pretty trivial matters, these, and not normally worth discussing. But a whispering-campaign against the Speaker is another matter. And that, say Mrs Boothroyd's friends, is what she has been facing.

Any government in trouble in the Commons, as this one is, sometimes tries to lean on the Speaker. The Speaker has, in practice, great discretion in handling the House each day. Earlier this year, Mrs Boothroyd changed a ruling on a Maastricht Social Chapter vote, which infuriated some ministers. More recently, the decision of the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, to make a Commons statement on the case against the SFO may have been prompted by the suspicion that otherwise the Speaker would have allowed the Opposition to demand his appearance.

Such judgements occur all the time and, in the nature of things, the Speaker's discretion will frequently irritate the government of the day. As John Major himself told Mrs Boothroyd when she was elected Speaker: 'You . . . have now become the guardian of the rights of the House and of each and every Member within it.' Such guardianship often conflicts with the desire of ministers to get business speedily through.

There are additional factors this time. No one has forgotten that Mrs Boothroyd, a Labour MP, was elected Speaker last year, in only the sixth contested election since 1800. The Conservative cause was split, which rather embarrassed the whips. The Government, with a small majority, would have preferred a Tory MP as Speaker - 17 members of the current Cabinet voted against her. In beating Peter Brooke, now the Heritage Secretary, Mrs Boothroyd became the Speaker for every MP, whichever way they voted. But human nature will out; and anyway, say disgruntled ministers, they don't much like her wig-less informality.

We have been here before: in 1988, after allowing an emergency Commons debate on social security changes, which angered the Thatcher Government, the previous Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, faced a whispering campaign and some rather crude Tory arm-twisting. He was not keeping proper order; it was time for him to retire. He weatherilled the storm, and survived for another four years. My guess is that Speaker Boothroyd is even more popular than he, and that these whispers against her will blow away with no harm done.

She is, after all, in a rather stronger position than Her Majesty's Government. It has a Commons majority of 18; hers, in last April's vote, was 134. It has the worried support of the Daily Express; she is a star on CNN. Above all, she has vocal supporters throughout the House. When she became Speaker, Mrs Boothroyd mused: 'It will be a lonelier life than I have known before: no longer part of the camaraderie of the Palace of Westminster.' Maybe not, but she has more friends there than any minister does. So don't mess with Betty.