Who Can Fill Betty's Boots?; as Betty Boothroyd Prepares to Step Down, Certain Challenges Face the New Speaker - Most Importantly to Raise the Profile of a Commons Which the Majority of the People Believe Is an Anachronistic Sideshow, Writes Political Editor Jason Beattie

The Birmingham Post (England), October 16, 2000 | Go to article overview

Who Can Fill Betty's Boots?; as Betty Boothroyd Prepares to Step Down, Certain Challenges Face the New Speaker - Most Importantly to Raise the Profile of a Commons Which the Majority of the People Believe Is an Anachronistic Sideshow, Writes Political Editor Jason Beattie


Oh Betty what have you done? Why have you left your pounds 114,000 a year job, the plush apartment overlooking the Thames and the chance to thrash some sense into the recalcitrant MPs who assembled before you?

Why, for goodness' sake, have you chosen to desert your post so it can be filled by an unworthy minion? Creep back. Please, creep back.

This entreaty will fall on deaf ears. Miss Boothroyd will leave with the same determination with which she arrived and in her place will come. . ?

That, of course, is the question exercising those few politicians who have drifted back early from the ridiculously long summer recess.

(A break, incidentally, which ends as half-term week starts - a piece of time-tabling that only adds to the perception the Commons operates in a neverworld).

For next Monday, the eyes of Britain will be concentrated on the House of Commons as it goes about electing Miss Boothroyd's replacement. Traditionalists are revelling at this brief flicker of glory: it will be a splendid opportunity for the House to display to the nation its ancient ceremonies and quaint, if disorganised customs.

It will be the Trooping of the Colour meets the annual Rotarian dinner: a mixture of pomp and pomposity disguising an important political act.

This is the Westminster way: normality is constantly being interrupted by history.

It could be argued that this will be one of the most significant elections of a Speaker since Judge Lenthal was picked to stand up against King Charles.

The Commons has never been held in such low esteem - not just by the Government but also by the people.

This is the twin challenge facing the new Speaker: to prevent the further erosion of the legislative's influence at a time when Downing Street treats it as a minor irritant and to raise the profile of a Commons which the majority of the people believe is an anachronistic, irrelevant sideshow.

Indeed, one of the reasons why Mr Blair has managed to by-pass Westminster so successfully is because most people share his view that it is a care home for the conceited and the cocooned.

There are some in the House with enough self-awareness to realise they work in the senile grandmothers of all Parliaments and are pressing for what they call reform.

Normally, the term reform would imply something drastic or even revolutionary but in the Commons it usually means tinkering with some obscure law so as to avoid the minimal amount of confrontation - if you are lucky.

In the case of electing the Speaker, Miss Boothroyd has rejected all suggestions for a review of the process before she departs therefore banishing any prospect of change for another generation.

Modernisers will probably hide their heads in shame during the events which will take place next Monday. Everything which is wrong with the Commons - those exact things which have made it distant from the public - will be on display:

Twelve white middle-aged men and one woman (Gwyneth Dunwoody aged 69) have put themselves forward for the Speaker's job. …

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Who Can Fill Betty's Boots?; as Betty Boothroyd Prepares to Step Down, Certain Challenges Face the New Speaker - Most Importantly to Raise the Profile of a Commons Which the Majority of the People Believe Is an Anachronistic Sideshow, Writes Political Editor Jason Beattie
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