Saturday, June 20, 2009

Who will win the race for the Speakership?

By all rights it should be Sir Alan Beith, but it probably won't be. Here's today's Journal column.

It is often the case with politicians that nothing so becomes them in their conduct of an office as the leaving of it, and this week, House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin proved he was no exception.

For nine years, he has presided uneasily over a Chamber which elected him to the post for quite the wrong reasons in the first place, and has had good cause to regret that choice moreorless ever since.

The errors of judgement have been legion, from his early refusal to call MPs who had failed to vote for him in 2000, to the ill-starred attempt to block freedom of information requests over MPs’ expenses last year.

Yet at the same time, it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for the doughty old Glaswegian, especially over the manner of his dismissal by MPs seeking a convenient scapegoat for their own moral failures.

It was inevitable that the outgoing Speaker would allude to that in his valedictory speech on Thursday, lamenting the lack of leadership shown by the main party leaders in failing to reform the expenses system sooner.

Predictable too were the treacly tributes paid to Mr Martin by the very people who brought him down – not least Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg who praised his “great authority.”

Some will call it hypocrisy, but in reality it’s just the way of the world. Just as we don’t speak ill of the dead, so in politics people tend not to speak ill of the political living dead.

Since his resignation last month, much of the anger and hostility that had built up against Mr Martin has dissipated, as it invariably does in politics. One day soon, no doubt, they will praise Gordon Brown for his “great leadership” too.

So who should replace him in Monday’s election? Well, there are ten candidates – seven Tories, two Labour members, and a lone Liberal Democrat in the shape of our very own Berwick MP, Sir Alan Beith.

The Tories are a fascinatingly varied bunch, ranging from a candidate in John Bercow who is a Labour MP in all but name, to one in Sir Patrick Cormack who is the epitome of the old ‘knights of the shires’ who used to dominate the Tory benches.

In between, they have the “bicycling baronet,” Sir George Young, two serving deputy speakers in Sir Alan Haselhurst and Sir Michael Lord, and the backbench maverick Richard Shepherd – all four of them making their second attempts on the job.

Finally, there is the Tories’ “interim candidate”- former Home Office minister Anne Widdecombe, whose intention to use the ten months between now and the general election to clean up Parliament is surely beyond even her formidable talents.

On the Labour side, there are two wildly contrasting contenders – the 37-year-old former junior minister Parmjit Dhanda, and the vastly experienced former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett.

Two weeks ago, Mrs Beckett was begging Mr Brown in vain to make her a full member of the Cabinet once again, yet her subsequent emergence as a serious runner for the Speakership shows once more just what a political survivor she is.

Mr Dhanda, bidding to become the first ethnic minority Speaker, has fought an equally remarkable campaign, attracting highly positive reviews for someone so relatively inexperienced.

Finally there is Sir Alan, also running for the second time and the man with surely the hardest task in the race, in that he will need to attract most of his support from MPs of a different party to win.

So who should get the job? Well, a lot depends on whether MPs take a high-minded view of the needs of Parliament, or whether, like the last Speakership election, it becomes dominated by faction-fighting and tactical considerations.

In the wake of the expenses scandal all the contenders, in one way or another, are running as “pro-reform” candidates, but only one of them can point to a consistent record of being pro-reform over the course of four decades.

As he put it in his manifesto: “Public anger has created both a need and an opportunity for wider constitutional change, which is something to which I have been committed throughout my political life.”

There is little doubt in my mind that if MPs want a parliamentary reformer who really means it, they should elect Sir Alan Beith on Monday.

But will he get it? I have to say I think it’s unlikely, based on the fact that for all the talk of putting Parliament first, the two big parties still have a tendency to vote tribally in these sorts of situations.

At one point, Labour MPs looked set to try to impose Mr Bercow, who is disliked on his own benches, in revenge for the Tories’ role in bringing down their shop steward, Mr Martin.

There has been less of such talk in recent days, but the desire to dish the opposition is always a factor in politics and even though it is the Tories’ “turn” to provide the Speaker, both their leading candidates have been tainted by the expenses row.

Sir Alan Haselhurst was found to have charged his £12,000 gardening bill to the taxpayer, while Sir George Young claimed the maximum £127,000 in second home allowances over past two years.

If the next Speaker is to be a Conservative, Sir George still appears to be the one most capable of winning cross-party support, but one factor that cannot be ignored is that Labour still has by far the largest number of MPs.

If those MPs decide to swing behind one candidate en bloc, as they did with Mr Martin in 2000, that candidate is going to be very hard to beat.

My judgement therefore is that the next Speaker will be the candidate who can secure the most support from Labour MPs, while at the same time attracting a significant number of votes from the other parties.

On that basis, I am going to stick my neck out and say that the likeliest winner of the race to be the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons is Mrs Margaret Beckett.

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James.R.Skinner said...

bit pointless though really. Seeing as an election will be held within the next year, the speakers role is going to be minimal. Plus, i fail to see Margaret Beckett gaining the same respect as Mr.Martin, even though he was one to fiddle the money books.

James Higham said...

There is little doubt in my mind that if MPs want a parliamentary reformer who really means it, they should elect Sir Alan Beith on Monday.

How, Paul, would he reform a moribund assembly which Blair/Brown have nobbled and is only waiting on Ireland Lisbon to be subsumed by the EU?