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24 July 2000

A true star, or just a dry old trout?

Praise has been lavished on Betty Boothroyd as she retires as Speaker of the House. But was she real

By Quentin Letts

As a former sprinter, “Ming” Campbell may have terrific calves, but we are unlikely to get quite such a silken-hoofed Speaker again.

The one-time Tiller Girl Betty Boothroyd has announced her retirement as 155th Speaker of the House of Commons. From the weeping and wailing at Westminster, you would have thought that Democracy herself had leapt overboard.

Potential successors include not only the Lib Dems’ Campbell, but also Labour’s Gwyneth Dunwoody, the current Deputy Speaker, Sir Alan Haselhurst, and – tragicomically – the orotund Tory Sir Patrick Cormack and that broken reed David Clark. One also hears deep rumours that Margaret Beckett, currently the Leader of the House, would “make a first-class candidate”. Indeed she would, but the House might need persuading to go for a Cabinet minister.

Despite the high calibre of possible successors, the public impression is that the House will be bereft without Boothroyd. The announcement of her departure gave rise to cross-party eulogies and misty-eyed remembrances from a long, long list of friends. But just how good was Speaker Boothroyd?

If or when the monarchy goes, the Speakership has the potential to become highly interesting – perhaps even a form of presidency. But for the moment, it is a job in which you have to make your own running. The main arrow in a Speaker’s quiver is public opinion, and this was where Boothroyd was undeniably a star. Her Commons persona, part Mrs Slocombe of Are You Being Served?, part Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances, played well on the airwaves. A sign of her success was the prolonged applause she received from the public gallery in the chamber when she announced her retirement. What a pity she did not capitalise on that affection. With her throat-clutching interventions and her rasping, gin-and-cigs voice, she could have been a potent force for parliamentary accountability. As it was, her record betrays timidity rather than temerity, and inactivity rather than industry.

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Why, for instance, was there no Boothroyd attack on new Labour for despatching MPs on “constituency weeks” (that euphemism for “get them outta here”)?

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Could she not have done more to prevent blatant sycophancy? Should she have been quite so brutally dismissive of the Liberal Democrats when they sought, at the start of the parliament, to share the main opposition front bench with the Tories? Much as one loathes them, should she perhaps have been more adventurous on the question of Sinn Fein members taking their seats?

No 10 would have thought hard before attacking any moves that Speaker Boothroyd made to restore the strength of the Commons. These will be questions for the historians and biographers. They certainly did not get asked amid all the gooey praise of the past week.

One Blairite MP referred to her as “the saintly Betty”, lifting his eyebrows to indicate dissent from the positive press she received. He complained that she “failed to help the Commons adapt to the times”. Most spectacularly, she refused to permit breast-feeding during debates. This was, in fact, a minor issue to most MPs, but she could have handled the row more sympathetically. Younger female MPs are letting it be known in the corridors of Westminster that they feel the Speaker acted like a dry old trout.

In the Commons tearoom, some Tory hotheads complain that Boothroyd was “biased” against them. This is debatable. But she could have been more open to the tabling of emergency debates which would have made the Commons more topical – and would have put the wind up ministers.

She could also have done more to stop frontbenchers waffling at the despatch box. Ministers’ answers have become as opaque as lavatory window glass, while leading Tories have been turning questions into mini speeches (William Hague is a culprit). Erskine May’s guide to parliamentary practice permits a Speaker to prevent “irrelevance and tedious repetition” by any member, not just wayward backbenchers.

More serious are complaints about Boothroyd’s resistance to changes to Commons hours, including the recent Thursday morning sittings. “They get in the way of her lunch,” snipes one Labour MP. One of her themes has been that the government bypasses parliament, but unless the House starts earlier in the day, it will struggle to scoop the Today programme.

Another grievance has been her disinclination to publish a daily “batting list” of speakers for debates. Such a list is already done at the House of Lords. Peers know when to flock to the chamber to hear celebrated orators – and when to avoid the bores. Why not allow such a list in the Lower House? The Speaker’s Office is understood to feel that it would dissuade MPs from attending debates.

Speaker Boothroyd could have done more to encourage Commons reform, not least to win the House the right to choose select committees. The initiative was instead seized by the government. It created a modernisation committee, packed it with toadies, and hoped it would outshine the hoary old Liaison Committee of Commons elders. A bolder Speaker might have set up a committee of her own.

The Speakership is often described as “powerful”, but the chair has been robbed of much of its power by standing orders. Apart from the fame, its chief attractions might appear to be the money (£106,716 a year) and the chance to ride on the international conference carousel. Boothroyd has loved that, and she will be doing gigs in New York, London, Edinburgh, Ukraine and the Baltic states before she quits. She is also frequently to be found in Cyprus.

As a teenager, Boothroyd attended dance classes in her native Dewsbury, Yorkshire, with the young Marcus Fox. He would later become a knight of the Tory back benches. Buxom Betty and her beau learnt many a merry dance. It is an art she never forgot. She has one last spin on the Commons floor. Before the recess, she will be making a valedictory statement to the House. In it, she is expected to strike out at the enemies of representative democracy. Better late than never.

Quentin Letts is parliamentary sketchwriter for the Daily Mail