- Who will be dragged to the chair next?
When Michael Martin decides to step down as Speaker of the House of Commons, a new mechanism for election to this office will be used for the first time. Following the glut of nominees for the post in 2000, proposals recommended by Tony Benn were modified and adopted by the House Select Committee, whereby MPs will vote by secret ballot, eliminating a candidate who comes last or receives less than 5% of votes cast, until one candidate has an absolute majority, which will then be confirmed by a formal motion, moving that the winner be appointed to the Speakership.
According to Standing Order no 1, the debates and votes are overseen from the Speakerâ€™s chair by the Father of the House (in 2000, this was Sir Edward Heath). Should Michael Martin choose to stand down before the next General Election, this will be Alan Williams (Lab, Swansea West) who has indicated he will not contest his seat next time. If Speaker Martin retires at or after the next General Election, the Father of the House will probably be Sir Peter Tapsell (Con, Louth & Horncastle).
Last time there was an election for Speaker, twelve candidates were proposed to the House (two others were not formally proposed); all but Martin were voted down as amendments. The election broke an unwritten convention of the last thirty years, by not following a Labour Speaker with a Conservative Speaker.
Below is a list of likely or suitable candidates, with an indication of their chances. Although not a problem historically, the tone of debate in 2000 indicated that many MPs felt having held high government office, or even having been a frontbencher or whip in opposition, undermined a candidateâ€™s suitability.
The prerequisites appeared to be a commitment to the backbenchers, a non-partisan and independent streak, a commitment to the Commons as an institution, and a degree of seniority. Almost all candidates last time had served as MPs since the 1970s. Candidates will this time require the support of twelve MPs, at least three of whom should not be of the same party as the candidate.
Where appropriate, I have included the number of votes received in 2000 â€“ this is a poor measure of support, because of the format of the contest, but I thought it might be indicative of support in a very loose sense. From 2000, I have excluded from consideration only John McWilliam (no longer an MP), David Clarke (now in the House of Lords), Gwyneth Dunwoody (who sadly passed away earlier this year), and Sir Menzies Campbell, as I do not believe a former party-leader would still be considered eligible for the role.
Sir Alan Haselhurst (Con, Saffron Walden) â€“ Chairman of Ways and Means, and the most senior of the Deputy Speakers. Second favourite at least.
2000 result: Nominated by David Winnick (Lab, Walsall North), seconded by Peter Brooke (Con, Cities of London & Westminster), 140 Ayes v 345 Noes.
Sir George Young (Con, Northwest Hampshire) â€“ Old Etonian, Tory Reform Group patron, and was briefly the Secretary of State for Transport (oversaw the privatisation of British Rail). Probably the favourite.
2000 result: Nominated by John MacGregor (Con, South Norfolk), seconded by Helen Jackson (Lab, Sheffield Hillsborough), 241 Ayes v 317 Noes.
Sir Michael Lord (Con, Central Suffolk & Ipswich North) â€“ Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, so the most junior of the Deputy Speakers. Not especially likely, given other Tory candidates.
2000 result: Nominated by Tom King (Con, Bridgwater), seconded by Andrew Reed (Lab, Loughborough), 146 Ayes v 290 Noes.
Sir Patrick Cormack (Con, South Staffordshire) â€“
Having not had a Catholic Speaker since Mary I, until Michael Martin, could there be a second in a row? Pompous, but well-liked, backbencher, who chairs the NI Select Committee. The dark horse of the contest, and most likely non-Deputy Speaker.
2000 result: Nominated by Gillian Shepherd (Con, Southwest Norfolk), seconded by Tam Dalyell (Lab, Linlithgow), 130 Ayes v 287 Noes.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Con, Macclesfield) â€“ Husband of Ann Winterton, Conservative MP for Congleton. The senior member on the Speakerâ€™s Panel of Chairmen, and so takes the honorary title of Deputy Speaker. Considered right wing, especially on abortion and homosexuality. Not that likely, and after the expenses scandal, I would say not a chance.
2000 result: Nominated by John Wilkinson (Con, Ruislip Northwood), seconded by Stephen Pound (Lab, Ealing North), 116 Ayes v 340 Noes.
Richard Shepherd (Con, Aldridge Brownhills) â€“ Outspoken, and popular, backbencher, renowned for ignoring the party whip. Considered a highly-effective parliamentarian. Introduced a Bill which his own party defeated with a three-line whip â€“ libertarian leanings. A consensus candidate, popular outside his party. Only candidate in 2000 not to be nominated/seconded by MPs of his own party.
2000 result: Nominated by Martin Bell (Independent, Tatton), seconded by Tony Wright (Lab, Cannock Chase), 136 Ayes v 282 Noes.
Sir Alan Beith (Lib Dem, Berwick-upon-Tweed) â€“ Longest-serving Lib Dem MP, and former Deputy Leader of his party. Would be the first speaker from outside the Labour and Conservative parties since 1928. Not a likely choice, though would be backed by Lib Dems and Nationalists, so could survive several rounds. Made a knight in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List, he benefits more than any other candidate from the revised format proposed by Viscount Stansgate.
2000 result: Nominated by Dafydd Wigley (Plaid Cymru, Caernarfon), seconded by Jackie Ballard (Lib Dem, Taunton), 83 Ayes v 409 Noes
Sylvia Heal (Lab, Halesowen & Rowley Regis) â€“ First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, and therefore the second most senior Deputy Speaker. With Betty Boothroyd having served before Michael Martin, there is less pressure for a female Speaker, and a third Labour Speaker in a row is unlikely to pass without massive complaint from the Tories and Lib Dems. Her sister, Ann Keen MP (Lab, Brentford & Isleworth) seconded Peter Snapeâ€™s (Lab, West Brom East) nomination of Michael Martin in 2000.
2000 result: Was not nominated
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Lab, Manchester Gorton) â€“ Chair of Media, Culture and Sport Committee, and former Shadow Home and Shadow Foreign Secretary. Colourful and funny, he is an eccentric. As likely as any other Labour candidate.
2000 result: Was not nominated
Frank Field (Lab, Birkenhead) â€“ Described by Peter Oborne as proof that radicals need not belong to the extreme political wings, but can be ideological Centrists. Former Minister for Welfare Reform, he is more than prepared to clash with senior politicians. Principled and articulate. Most popular Labour MP on the Tory benches, and there was frequent speculation that he could defect.
2000 result: Was not nominated.
Vince Cable (Lib Dem, Twickenham) â€“ Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, and was widely acclaimed for his parliamentary performances whilst acting leader in 2007. Respected, if not popular on the Labour and Tory benches, he might prove an interesting compromise candidate if there is no acceptable winner emerging from the two largest parties.
2000 result: Was not nominated
John Bercow (Con, Buckingham) â€“ Apparently considered the Conservative most likely to cross the floor after the defection of Quentin Davies, Bercow has gone from being one of the most energetic right-wingers to a leftist-Conservative rebel prepared to ignore IDSâ€™ three-line whip by supporting gay rights. Rumoured to be very keen on the job.
2000 result: Was not nominated
In summary, conventional wisdom would suggest that it is extremely likely that a Conservative will be chosen next time around, and that Sirs Alan Haselhurst, George Young, and Patrick Cormack are the most likely contenders. With Vince Cable unlikely to abandon his partyâ€™s front bench, and no likely Labour candidate other than Sylvia Heal, it would seem almost certain that a Conservative would take the chair in the next Parliament, so Iâ€™d be inclined to bet on the favourites if a market is only announced after the next election.
However, as a former Labour loyalist, Martin may wish to go prior to the next election, even by a matter of weeks, to allow for his successor to come from his former party. If a Labour majority installed another Labour speaker just prior to a General Election, one wonders if the Conservatives would run against the new Speaker breaking another convention that major parties do not challenge the speaker for re-election (the SNP do not follow this convention at present). If not, there would likely be a Labour speaker for another decade, as there is no other mechanism other than death and retirement for removing a speaker from office, unless they do something that disqualifies them from being an MP. The odds on a Conservative would be much longer if an election for Speaker (chaired by Alan Williams) occurred before Labour loses its majority.
I think the important thing to remember, whether this election takes place before or after the next General Election, is that the change in the way of voting will mean that favourites will be poor value – the multiple rounds of voting will help candidates like Sir Alan Beith who will likely survive to at least third place thanks to his own party and the nationalists. Such a candidate could provide a comprimise if both the Labour and Conservative front-runners are considered unpalatable. So expect LD/minor party candidates, or dark horses like Richard Shepherd, to be good value because people are unaware of the new system.
There is, of course, a danger that the confirmatory motion will fail to endorse the eventual winner of a multiple-round system – nobody knows what happens then, though I suspect that the Father of the House will return to the methods set out in Standing Order no. 1, and the proposed candidate will be a motion defeated only by an amendment. If this happens, once again, put your money on the favourites.
If the Speaker’s election is before the next GE: Martin would only do it to ensure a Labour win – if the favourites (Haselhurst and Young) are 3/1 or longer then take it, otherwise bet on the Labour frontrunner.
If the Speaker’s election is after the next GE: Favourites will be on very slim odds. Third-party or dark horses will be good value because of the new system. Lay Labour candidates wherever possible.
If the new system does not result in standard confirmatory motion: Pile onto the favourites (Haselhurst and Young) and add Conservative outliers like Shepherd and Cormack as covering bets.
UPDATE: There are rumours of a ‘Draft Paul Murphy’ movement, according to Iain Dale