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Wednesday, 12 July, 2000, 16:18 GMT
Appreciating Betty Boothroyd
Retiring Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd
Betty Boothroyd just wanted to be called Madam
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Many of those who visited speaker Betty Boothroyd's opulent and historic official residence in the Commons left with a memory that will probably stay with them for life.

She would give guests a guided tour of her apartment pointing out, in particular, the impressive and massively-padded four poster in her bed chamber.

With a twinkle in her eye, the former dancing girl would plant her backside on it and then invite them to "have a bounce" themselves.

One or two, and I confess to having been one of them, couldn't resist the temptation - after all, you don't get two invitations like that in a lifetime.

She, of course, never slept in it, preferring a "normal" bed in her private apartment in the same building.

Her hospitality is also legendary. On one occasion she was showing a group around and suddenly disappeared only to return moments later in a spectacular gown.

Declaring she had to go off to Buckingham Palace for a bit, she told the guests to stay as long as they liked and help themselves to as much drink and food as they liked.

Call me Madam

It was that down-to-earth, "call me Madam" style that made her such a star in the Commons and, mostly, won her admirers on all sides of the House.

Where her predecessors were famous for their shouts of "Order, order", when trying to keep MPs in line, she came up with her own catch phrase.

The first time she presided over Prime Minister's Questions, she astonished MPs by bringing it to a close with the now immortal words: "Right, time's up."

It was like Bet Lynch calling time in the Rovers Return - an impression helped by her gravelly voice, the result of a 20-a-day cigarette habit - and it stunned MPs into silence.

Over eight years she made it as much a Commons tradition as slamming the door in Black Rod's face during the state opening of Parliament.

One of the requirements for the job as Speaker is, naturally, to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of procedure which not even the longest serving of MPs is likely to acquire.

So it was no surprise that, in the early days, she did not always have the command of the House she now possesses.

Betty Boo

During one late night sitting she clearly let her attention wander and lost track of events.

When she next looked up the few MPs who were in the chamber were all staring at her clearly awaiting a pronouncement. But she was lost.

At this point a veteran, and now sadly deceased political journalist, leaned over the barrier of the press gallery - which runs above and behind the Speaker's Chair - and, in a stage whisper suggested: "just say 'Order', Betty."

Without blinking an eye she did exactly that, which then gave her just enough time to take swift advice from one of her clerks.

The fact that she pulled it off, and overlooked the journalist's flagrant breach of parliamentary rules, spoke volumes. That was the same journalist who first dubbed her "Betty Boo" - a nickname that stuck.

Thanks to the world-wide broadcasting of Parliament, she is probably the most famous Speaker the Commons has ever had.

No soft touch

But that is not to say she didn't make her fair share of enemies and, in the early days in particular, aggravated some Labour MPs who interpreted her attempt to be scrupulously even-handed as an anti-Labour bias.

She is no soft touch and will slap down ministers as readily as backbenchers if she thinks their behaviour is out of order.

Most recently she upset many with her refusal to allow breast feeding in committee hearings.

And she regularly ticked off ministers for undermining the role of Parliament by announcing things outside the Chamber.

As well as her own place in history, she is now also guaranteed a place in the Lords after the next general election.

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See also:

12 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Speaker Betty Boothroyd to retire
12 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Profile: Madam Speaker
08 Oct 99 | UK Politics
Madam Speaker celebrates 70
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