Speech on the re-election of Betty Boothroyd as Speaker

John Major/05/1997

Category: General Parliamentary Speeches

Madam Speaker-Elect, I am delighted to join the Prime Minister in congratulating you on your re-election to the Chair following the excellent speeches by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), and a cherished contribution by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).

When you first became our Speaker, you did so with substantial cross-party support. Your success is shown by the fact that you were re-elected today without opposition and with cross-party acclamation. We are all delighted to see you back in the Chair of our House. I know that in that Chair you will continue to display for all of us--long-serving Members and new Members alike--the qualities that have been evident in the past few years: fairness, common sense and, when needed, as sometimes in a fractious House it is, a touch of toughness distilled with good humour, to keep the order that is necessary to allow our debates to flow properly.

This House is a house of tradition, and it is a good tradition that in a new Parliament we meet first with a single common purpose--the election of our Speaker. In a Parliament in which--who knows?--many disputes may lie ahead, it is comforting to begin on a matter on which there is complete unanimity: to restore you to the Chair of our proceedings.

We in the House expect a great deal of our Speaker. The job specification is pretty daunting: the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon are only the basic requirements. We demand also impartiality, independence and fairness. We also like the Speaker to call us when we wish to speak and never to call those that we do not especially wish to hear. Sadly, Madam Speaker-Elect, you occasionally disappoint us on both counts from time to time, and we all have to get used to that.

Of course, the Speaker must also tolerantly accept the patently bogus points of order that are raised from time to time, and do so with a limited air of patience.

Madam Speaker-Elect, if I may be permitted to interject a note of controversy about an old friend, the appointment to office of the new Minister for Sport may slightly reduce your burden in that respect. It may be thought that it would be impossible for a House to produce such a paragon to govern its affairs, yet it does, and has in the past. In the past five years, Madam Speaker-Elect, it has become obvious that it has done so yet again.

It is often said in the House that the rights of Back Benchers are as sacred as those of Front Benchers. It is usually said by Back Benchers, and invariably Front Benchers pay lip service to that principle. I find myself in a unique position in the House. There are lots of Front Benchers, and even more Back Benchers who wish to be Front Benchers; I am a Front Bencher who wishes in due course to become a Back Bencher, so let me assert that the rights of Back Benchers are as important as those of Front Benchers. On Front Bench or Back Bench, Madam Speaker-Elect, I am happy to leave my fate in your safe hands.

Madam Speaker-Elect, the House has always expected a great deal of its Speaker. Of one of your 19th-century predecessors it was said:

"The manner in which he lives--his house, his table, his demeanour--render his receptions the most pleasing and magnificent possible".

Today--in that respect, at least--we are a little less demanding. I promise you that we do not expect to be feasted on fish, fowl and claret at the end of each of our debates--in that sense, you are better off.

The bargain cuts both ways, does it not? How much better off are we today than the House was under another of your predecessors, Mr. Speaker Manners Sutton, whose initial qualities for being Speaker were that he

"never . . . appeared to pay any attention to the privileges or orders of the House"?

As to his knowledge of Parliament, it was said:

"Some inconvenience will at first arise from his want of knowledge".

More chaos than inconvenience, I would think from my experience of this House. I warmly welcome all the new Members of Parliament from all parties to what is I believe the most remarkable institution in the world. I hope that they will enjoy their stay here, however long or short it may be. None of the new or old Members who has followed the proceedings of the House under your guidance, Madam Speaker-Elect, would say anything other than how fortunate we are to have your knowledge, your industry and your almost unfailing good humour at our service.

Today, your office is both much more demanding and much more professional than it has been at any stage in our long history. You are charged with protecting the rights of the House and with imposing good order, even in moments of high drama. Whether we are Front Benchers or Back Benchers, we owe it to you to help you to do so. We owe it to you in the interests of good debate, good order and the reputation of this House. Madam Speaker-Elect, may good fortune always attend you. I wish you every satisfaction in carrying out the duties of your historic office.