Page last updated at 18:15 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 19:15 UK

Why I should be the next Speaker

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

Candidates for Speaker
The ten candidates all said reform was needed but in different areas

It should have been the toughest of job interviews.

Ten candidates applying for the post of Speaker at televised hustings organised by the Hansard society, and facing cross questioning by their fellow politicians - who, of course, are also their electorate.

MPs vote by secret ballot to choose Michael Martin's successor next week but not that many of them turned up to hear, or grill, the candidates making their pitch.

That's not to say the ample Attlee suite in the plush Westminster annexe of Portcullis House wasn't labouring under the weight of numbers - the venue was packed to capacity.

But it was mostly sketch writers and print journalists who were doing the packing.

It was unfortunate that the prime minister had chosen to announce an inquiry into the Iraq war at the same time.

That's the sort of clash which none of the candidates would allow if elected speaker - or so they said.

We need to have somebody who resonates with the public, who possess some of the vulgar attributes that can connect with the public
Anne Widdecombe

Apparently, they would all be tougher with the executive in the interests of Parliament as a whole.

Hardly man bites dog.

But while the aspirants all agreed that that the expenses scandal was a bad thing - "a bubble that blew up in our face" as the Conservative MP Sir Alan Haselhurst so poetically described it - there were differences when it came to putting things right.

Sir Alan Beith, the Lib Dem grandee, opened proceedings with strong support for independent scrutiny of MPs' expenses but the Conservative John Bercow advocated root and branch reform.

Favourite's pitch

He is seen by some as the favourite. Not because he's popular with his own side - he really isn't - but because he has strong support on the majority Labour benches.

He called for a culture change at Westminster: "My view is the culture is profoundly boorish in the worst public school sort of a way", he opined.

That may well be true, but these comments won't necessarily endear him to what's often been called the most sophisticated electorate in the land: the very politicians whose behaviour he was denouncing.

Ann Widdecombe said she was unique because she was asking for the job on a temporary basis and would stand down at the next election.

But she perhaps made an error - amongst the restricted franchise that will select Michael Martin's successor - of suggesting that the new Speaker had to be as well known to the public as he or she was to parliament.

"We need to have somebody who resonates with the public, who possess some of the vulgar attributes that can connect with the public" she said, in a phrase which had listeners scratching their heads as to whether she was being self-deprecating or simply insulting the wider electorate.

John Redwood listening to the candidates
Other MPs asked the candidates about debates, pay and holidays

The Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda is bidding to be the first speaker from an ethnic minority background but when asked about his experience, he decided that in the current climate of scepticism, it was better not to display too much knowledge of the ways of Westminster.

He pointed out he was born a year after one of his rivals, the Conservative Patrick Cormack, had entered parliament.

He also suggested that parliamentary debates should be held around the country.

Logically, he cited his own constituency of Gloucester as a possible venue and England's second city, Birmingham as another - but then for good measure, he added Sidcup.

Maybe he really meant Tunbridge Wells because he suggested it would be a good thing if ministers came face to face "with an angry public" in town halls.

He also predicted he might not win the contest for Speaker, declaring himself a 'realist'.

After the expenses scandal, he may indeed find that his fellow politicians aren't exactly lining up to come face to face with their intemperate accusers.

Canny strategy?

Some of the older candidates perhaps played a cannier game.

The Conservative knights, Sir Alan Haselhurst and Sir Michael Lord, have both deputised for Michael Martin in the Speaker's chair.

Their pledges of impartiality and a willingness to call more backbenchers in debate might turn out to be a successful play to the gallery as those very backbenchers they were buttering up will ultimately decide the winner.

Margaret Beckett gave an all together more defensive speech, almost apologising for her recent ministerial experience but her pitch was that "extraordinary times" required an extraordinary candidate.

I think she meant herself.

Sir George Young, the Conservative 'bicycling baronet' who was an unsuccessful candidate in 2000 - despite getting Margaret Beckett's support - said this should be a contest about personalities and not just policies.

So perhaps it's too soon to rule out Ann Widdecombe after all.



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