Betty Boothroyd: “Jeremy Corbyn won’t be prime minister, dear. He ain’t going to win”

The first female Commons Speaker is on the comeback trail in her 90th year to fight for a second EU referendum.

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In her ninetieth year, Betty Boothroyd is making a comeback. The first and as yet only woman to be Speaker of the House of Commons (between 1992 and 2000), she is turning her command of political proceedings to a new cause: campaigning for a second EU referendum.

In April, the cross-bench peer and former Labour MP, who represented West Bromwich for nearly three decades, made a speech at a rally for the People’s Vote campaign.

“I thought, my friends, that my rallying days were over,” she told the crowd. “But this fight matters to me more than any I’ve known in my long life in politics.”

The speech, which opened with her distinctive cry of “Order! Order!”, went viral.

“‘Virol’ to me, when I was a child, meant something that you had on your toast in the war years, to give you vitamins,” she chuckles, as we sit in her House of Lords office.

With a view of turreted roofs encased in scaffolding, her garret is rather smaller than the official Speaker’s residence she once occupied. Lined with maroon leather volumes of the Palace of Westminster directory, and heavy with red patterned curtains and thick carpet, it is a target for moths.

Yet Boothroyd enjoys having the place to herself. Wearing a polka-dot dress with her hair perfectly coiffed and a sparkling silver portcullis brooch, she looks ready as ever to rise to the political occasion.

She fishes for a piece of notepaper in her handbag; she sometimes writes her thoughts down “because my brain doesn’t always work like it should”. Putting on her blue-framed glasses, she reads:

“It [Brexit] is the most serious political crisis since the Second World War. It has never been more vital that the country is given the choice of a responsible alternative.” Pause. “That’s rather good, isn’t it?”

After decades in politics, Boothroyd never expected her biggest fight to arrive so late. “I’m old enough now, I can’t hit out on all sorts of issues. This is the one great issue, which is as important as at wartime: what is happening to the country. And I want to preserve my energies and do what I can.”

Aged 16, she stayed with a social democrat family in Berlin, and saw the post-war devastation. “I’m very proud that we helped to put the continent of Europe back on its feet again,” she says. “I’m a patriot, but I’m also a European. I think the two go together.”

Aside from a few photos with overseas visitors, and a framed acrostic written for her retirement, there is little evidence of nostalgia in Boothroyd’s office, given that her time as Speaker kicked off with the Maastricht rebellion and ended when New Labour was still new. A desk takes up most of the space, and she replies to all her correspondence personally. There’s a lot to get through.

People often ask whether she wishes she were back in the Speaker’s chair. “I say ‘Yes, I do! Why not!’” she laughs. “They say ‘Why don’t you come back?’ I say ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’”

Brexiteers accuse the current Speaker, John Bercow, of favouring anti-Brexit MPs.

“We all do it our own way,” says Boothroyd. “I don’t think he’s broken any conventions. He probably has gone to the nth degree in some ways but he’s done it as he thinks it’s fit to do it, and we must leave it to Speakers to do that.”

Boothroyd voted Liberal Democrat in the European elections. It was her first time not voting Labour. “I couldn’t vote for that lot!” she says, describing them as “all over the place on Europe”.

Born to a politically active household in Dewsbury, Yorkshire (her parents were textile workers and trade unionists), she joined the Labour League of Youth at 16.

“I came out of the womb into the Labour movement,” she says. “It’s like miners’ coal dust underneath your fingernails. Very difficult to scrub out. I’m a social democrat to my fingertips. Of course it hurt for me to vote against my own party for the first time.”

Boothroyd sees Jeremy Corbyn as “under the thumb” of advisers who need “a wider view of the Labour Party and where we want to go”.

How would she feel about a Corbyn government? “He won’t be prime minister, dear. So that’s not a relevant question. Corbyn ain’t going to win… For the Tory party to say ‘We must have Johnson [to stop] Labour getting in’ – what a load of crap!”

She’s “distressed” at her party’s prospects. “I don’t think it has much of a future. There are very good people in the Labour Party who I would like to see in leadership. But under its present leadership, I don’t think it has a future, I really don’t.” Perhaps, she reflects, “it’s because of the European issue that I’ve got something to do, somewhere to use my energy, my voice, my brain, so I concentrate on that because I’m so depressed about what is happening inside the Labour Party”.

Boris Johnson dismays her too. “I think he will be the most unsafe pair of hands that would ever open a despatch box in Downing Street.”

Boothroyd harks back to a different breed of leadership. She served as a whip under Harold Wilson, and recalls the war years. “It was a ‘resilient generation’,” she says, quoting the Queen’s D-Day commemoration speech. “Because we had leadership. We had Churchill and Attlee in tandem. Now, we don’t have that.” She sighs.

“I’ve worked in this building since the 1950s, and I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go. We had giants looking after this country. I didn’t always agree with them, but they knew what they were doing. We don’t have that now.” 

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in