Brown in row over secret bid to install Beckett as speaker

June 23, 2009 - 0:0

Gordon Brown was embroiled in a damaging row over the election of a new Commons speaker after MPs claimed that Labour whips were secretly attempting to swing the contest in favor of his government’s preferred candidate, Margaret Beckett.  

Margaret Beckett is favorite to be elected the next speaker.
Senior Labour MPs said they were being put under pressure to endorse Mrs. Beckett, the former foreign secretary, in Monday’s secret ballot to choose a successor to Michael Martin.
On Sunday night Mrs. Beckett was the bookmakers’ favorite for the post.  
The role of Speaker is supposed to be politically impartial with the office-holder commanding the respect of the whole of Parliament. Mr. Martin was widely criticized for being partisan and there are growing fears over the independence of Mrs. Beckett, who only left the Government earlier this month.
Convention suggests that the whips should not be involved in what is supposed to be a non-partisan contest and their secretive role is angering many MPs. The Prime Minister recently called for Parliament to be cleaned up and made more transparent following the expenses scandal.
Mrs. Beckett has some of the most questionable expense claims of any senior Labour figure and was widely criticized by the audience during a recent appearance on the BBC One program Question Time.
She claimed thousands of pounds for gardening costs at her designated constituency second home while she lived in a grace and favor Whitehall apartment.
Stephen Pound, a Labour MP, urged government whips to stop “touting” Mrs. Beckett.
He said: “It isn’t on. If any of the whips out there are listening, stop doing it. We know what you’re doing; you’re going round touting Margaret Beckett.” A former Labour minister also expressed regret to The Daily Telegraph that the whips were pressuring MPs to support Mrs. Beckett’s candidature.
The election of a Commons speaker is seen as central to helping Parliament rebuild its reputation following Mr. Martin’s resignation last month. However, the contest risks being overshadowed by the row over the role of the whips, controversy over the expense claims of the contenders and deep opposition among many MPs to the leading candidates.
Among the front-runners for the position is John Bercow, a Conservative MP who is distrusted within his own party. Some ministers, including the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, are said to be supporting him. His election as speaker would not be welcomed by David Cameron. Mr. Bercow, who claimed for personal tax advice on his expenses, has privately pushed for MPs to receive a large pay rise.
It had been hoped that a popular MP who commanded the public’s respect would come forward. However, politicians who were backed for the post by ordinary voters – including Vince Cable and Frank Field – have either decided not to stand or have failed to get the necessary support.
Ten MPs are standing in the election, which will be conducted under a secret ballot for the first time. Each candidate will speak in the House of Commons this afternoon before a series of ballots until one MP receives at least 50 per cent of the vote. Mr. Brown is not expected to vote.
There are fears that the election may lead to another year of uncertainty in Parliament. Senior MPs are privately warning that Mr. Martin’s replacement may only hold the job until the next general election.
Commons rules state that a ballot for the post must be held after every general election. This has previously been a formality with the incumbent left unchallenged for as long as they wish. But it is likely to become a proper contest next year when Mr. Brown is expected to go to the country.
Douglas Carswell, the Conservative backbencher whose criticism ultimately led to Mr. Martin’s resignation, is one of those who says today’s victor can only be temporary.
He said: A “speaker has to have democratic legitimacy. Every new Parliament should elect its speaker by secret ballot. Otherwise we can’t be expected to regard that person as legitimate.”
If they win the next election, the Conservatives are expected to lead attempts to replace Mr. Bercow or Mrs. Beckett.
“If Bercow thinks he’ll be reelected unopposed once we have a majority in the Commons he’s got another think coming,” said one Conservative frontbencher. Two of the candidates have indicated that they may only be temporary appointments.
Ann Widdecombe says she would step down at the next general election. More than 300 new MPs may be elected and Miss Widdecombe is understood to believe that they should be given the opportunity to select a speaker.
Sir Patrick Cormack, a Tory grandee, has also said he would give up the chair during the next Parliament to give MPs first elected in 2010 a chance to vote on the speaker.
The disclosure that the next speaker is likely to be replaced quickly will add to pressure on the candidates to surrender generous pension arrangements that go with the job.
The speaker is entitled to a pension worth half their salary whenever they retire, regardless of how long they have served. The prime minister and Lord Chancellor have surrendered similar arrangements.
However, just three of the 10 candidates have said they will refuse to accept the package. Mrs. Beckett and Mr. Bercow are expected to accept the pension if elected.
Many members of the Tory front bench are likely to support Sir George Young, the Old Etonian chairman of the Commons standards committee. However, some backbench Conservatives say they will back Mrs. Beckett as the candidate with the best chance of stopping Mr. Bercow.
Sir Alan Beith, the only Liberal Democrat in the race, is also offering himself as a “Stop Bercow” candidate.