A True Star, or Just a Dry Old Trout?

By Letts, Quentin | New Statesman (1996), July 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

A True Star, or Just a Dry Old Trout?


Letts, Quentin, New Statesman (1996)


Praise has been lavished on Betty Boothroyd as she retires as Speaker of the House. But was she really so good at her job?

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.

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

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. …

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