IF there is one constant required as a cornerstone of the UK’s democratic system – apart from the presence of a monarch – it is the role of the Speaker of the House of Commons.
It might look like an arcane and slightly-ridiculous bit part that has no place in modern government, but it is really important.
Whether we end up with a no-deal Brexit, a general election or both, if the unprecedented task ahead is to be met, the next Speaker must be prepared to both take centre stage and also shrink into the background with nothing more than a raised eyebrow.
We cannot allow the scenes which embarrassed us all as a nation – rowdiness on the floor of the House, insults and catcalling – to carry on. And this is not to mention the unimaginable ill-discipline and squabbling that the television cameras doesn’t catch.
Although many would argue that John Bercow, who will leave the post after a decade on the consequential date of October 31, has not fulfilled the major quality of impartiality, a Speaker is necessary in order to ensure that the Commons runs effectively, that everyone has a say and that order and discipline are maintained.
The first record of any kind of ‘Speaker’ in Parliament goes back to 1258, but until the Civil War, their role was generally as a kind of messenger to the reigning monarch, who didn’t always like what they heard. Perhaps it is no surprise that seven Speakers were executed between 1394 and 1535.
Things might not have been quite that bad since 2009, but they have certainly been heated. Many words will be spilled analysing Bercow’s time in office; however, now is not the time to dwell, but to look for an individual who will take on the mantle in an uber-demanding climate.
MPs could do worse that look to a Yorkshirewoman. After all, one of the most memorable and effective Speakers in living memory was Dewsbury-born Betty Boothroyd, who did the job for five years in the 1990s and celebrates her 90th birthday next month.
I was surprised to find that Boothroyd’s was such a relatively short tenure; such was her presence, gravitas and common sense, it seemed a lot longer.
No wonder she made such an impact. She was actually the first woman ever to do the job. And alongside an impressive track record as the Labour MP for West Bromwich and a wide political career which encompassed stints in local government and Washington during the Kennedy years, she was a dancer for the renowned Tiller Girls troupe in the 1940s – although “not a very good one” as she admitted in her biography.
All that, plus her penchant for red lipstick and her family background – her parents were textile workers, her dad an ardent Trades Unionist – made a huge impression on me.
As a rookie journalist in 1992, I wrote to request an interview for a women’s magazine (no emails in those days) when she stepped into the gold-embossed robes.
The experience taught me never to make assumptions. It also taught me to always be slightly scared of Yorkshirewomen, a lesson that today’s MPs might do well to heed when they’re being sexist and/or regionalist.
Back came a meticulously-typed letter on House of Commons-headed notepaper pointing out that she was not a ‘Mrs’ but a ‘Ms’. I never did secure that interview and these days of course, she’s a Baroness.
I’m not being tokenist. It doesn’t have to be a woman. Or even a Yorkshire person. However, I would say that more than ever, it needs to be a person with the strength of character to remain entirely above the fray and to be completely unimpeachable.
Rosie Winterton, Deputy Speaker and Labour MP for Doncaster Central, is being spoken of as a strong contender. Technically, she was born in Leicester, but this former Chief Whip certainly knows the workings of the Commons inside out and also understands life outside Westminster. Other front-runners include Harriet Harman, an oft-derided but distinguished and indefatigable Labour politician.
Boothroyd still faces life with dignity, but the same cannot be said of all her Parliamentary colleagues. One of the many criticisms levelled at Bercow is that he has allowed his own personal stance to get in the way, particularly over Brexit.
There’s a long way to go yet and a lot of potential for surprises; each candidate must submit their bid, backed by nominations of between 12 and 15 cross-party MPs, by the morning of the Speaker’s election, which will be scheduled by the Commons authorities.
Some may argue that these days, the last thing the unruly House of Commons wants is one with ambition and verve. Yet, to paraphrase Kipling, testing times call for strong individuals who will not lose their head when others around them are completely losing the plot.