The 10 who want to be called Mr Speaker

IF the public had a vote, Ann Widdecombe would be the next Speaker of the Commons.

Graham Dines

IF the public had a vote, Ann Widdecombe would be the next Speaker of the Commons. But the Westminster favourite seems to be another Tory MP, University of Essex graduate John Bercow. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES the candidates' chances.

TEN people want to be Speaker of the House of Commons. I'm tempted to say that any of the candidates would be better than the present incumbent Michael Martin, who oozes working class Glaswegian values but has led the fight against publishing details of MPs expenses in which too many of them have been exposed as on the make.

Two Conservatives from this region are in the running. Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) and Sir Michael Lord (Suffolk Central & Ipswich North) are currently deputies to Speaker Martin but in a race in which personality rather than experience is the key to success, I fear neither will end up being dragged into the chair next Monday.

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Sir Alan has been nominated by Colchester Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell, who described him as a “firm and fair chairman of proceedings” and would make an “excellent” Speaker. But he has been mired in the expenses scandal orchestrated by The Daily Telegraph, eventually paying back �12,000 he had claimed for gardening at his Essex home.

Sir Michael is well respected at Westminster and is an effective and uncompromising chairman of proceedings. He says nobody knew better than him the “frustrations of being a backbencher” and insists that the Government must stop making significant policy announcements outside Westminster.

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However, like Sir Alan, he has been named by The Daily Telegraph for claiming �8,000 for his gardening.

Buckingham MP John Bercow, who is a Tory left-winger with a Labour voting wife, is being supported by Labour MPs who know his election will anger David Cameron and the Conservatives.

Bercow is an enigma and is certainly controversial and divisive. The 46-year-old son of a Jewish taxi driver from Finchley and who was once touted as one of Britain's foremost tennis prospects - becoming British junior number one ranking until glandular fever stopped his playing career - Bercow started his politics from the near extreme right, being a member of the Monday Club and secretary of its immigration and repatriation committee, some of whose members wore “Hang Nelson Mandela” T-shirts.

He severed his links with the Monday Club while a student at the University of Essex in Colchester, and since election to parliament, has gradually embraced a soft left outlook on social issues.

Bercow himself says: “I have been on a political journey of enlightenment from the Thatcherite right to the political centre ground.” And it has even been suggested that he could defect to Labour, after he was appointed by Gordon Brown to an advisory post on a government review of support for children, language, and communication skills. His own son is autistic.

More than 100 Labour MPs are backing his candidature, which has led Conservatives to suggest they will support former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett for the job. If Tories prefer Beckett to Bercow, it says little for the chances of other Tories in the contest.

Mrs Beckett is one of the most respected figures in parliament. She was the acting leader of the party between the death of John Smith and the election of Tony Blair and although partisan, she is less likely to give way to the wants of the executive than Speaker Martin.

Miss Widdecombe is the popular choice in the country. She is a no-nonsense spinster, a Roman Catholic like Martin, and would only do the job as an interim stop gap until the next election, which she is not contesting.

She has made a name for herself - and also greatly enriched her own pension pot - by becoming something of a television celebrity, having chaired with great aplomb programmes such as Have I Got News for You.

Self-deprecatingly, she says: “We need to have someone who possesses some of the vulgar attributes that can connect with the public.” But as MPs nowadays don't seem to be able to connect with their constituents, her campaign is probably doomed.

If elected, Bercow would be the youngest Speaker in history. As would Parmjit Dhanda, a 37 year-old Sikh, the only other Labour MP in the contest. He wants to communicate with modern Britain and “firmly shift the pendulum of power back to the public.” His only chance is if Bercow is knocked out in the early stages of the ballot and Labour MPs shift their support to him.

The other candidates are headed by Sir George Young, who was dubbed the bicycling baronet for riding to the Commons long before it became fashionable. A former Transport Secretary, he wants to shift Prime Minister's Questions to a Thursday to lengthen the parliament week.

However, as an old Etonian, he's unlikely to receive much support from the Labour benches.

Richard Shepherd, a little known Tory backbencher, is Eurosceptic to the core and was a Maastricht rebel against John Major. Sir Patrick Cormack is a long-serving backbencher but is likely to be seen as too establishment to succeed in the ballot.

Sir Alan Beith is the only Liberal Democrat in the contest. However, in the expenses file of The Daily Telegraph, Sir Alan is reported to have claimed �117,000 in second home expenses on a London flat while his peeress wife was also claiming House of Lords allowances to stay there.

Ten candidates, all of whom are English, and probably the winner will come from the three frontrunners with the bookmakers - Bercow as 6/4 favourite, with Widdecombe 7/2 and Beckett 6/1.

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