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5.26 pm

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): I beg to move, as an amendment to the Question, to leave out "Mr. Michael J. Martin" and insert instead thereof "Mr. Menzies Campbell".

In proposing the name of Ming Campbell, I realise that I am breaking the tradition by nominating a member of a minority party. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) pointed out in his letter to The Times last week, however, there is no sufficiently clear tradition to tie the House to any course of action.

Nevertheless, it has to be remembered that the election of Speaker Boothroyd did end the precedent in the post-war period of the holder of the office always coming from the majority party. I would point out that, in part, Betty Boothroyd's success was the result of a recognition that the winner-takes-all rule that so often applies in our proceedings should not be employed in the election of the Speaker. It is for this reason that I would urge friends on the Government Benches to consider a candidate from ranks other than our own. In future Parliaments--certainly not the next one--it could be in the interests of a Labour Opposition to call on such a precedent.

That, however, is not the sole reason for proposing Ming Campbell; indeed, everything that I have said so far could apply to a member of the Conservative party.

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I happen to believe that Back Benchers--whose champion we expect the Speaker to be--will be better represented by someone from the most politically excluded of all groups; the minority party.

With nearly 50 Members--47 to be exact--the Liberal Democrats are not the minuscule minority that once they were. The increase in their numbers is in no small way due to the credibility of such Members as Menzies Campbell. In a bipartisan Chamber such as this, it is still no mean feat to achieve the status and authority that Ming Campbell now enjoys. His work in the House--and, in particular, in the areas of foreign affairs and security--has done much to contribute to the consensus in this country which has seen us through so many of the international travails of recent years.

It has been suggested that Menzies Campbell enjoys support from elsewhere in the Labour ranks, and that this may be to his disadvantage. As far as I am concerned, all I can say is that, on this subject, No. 10 has employed the same method of consultation as usual--namely, extra- sensory perception. Certainly, Ming has brought to his work in this House all the skills of advocacy that we would expect from a distinguished silk at the Scottish Bar.

However, the House needs more than the services of a hired legal gun in the post of Speaker and more than a mastery of procedure. We know that "Erskine May" is the guide and record of precedent, but not the sole repository of wisdom. We need a Speaker who can nudge and cajole the House, while never forgetting that if we the Members want--as I do--to end a lot of the flummery and the arcane procedures, such as the process of this election, it is up to us as Members to decide, and it is for the Speaker to ensure that our wishes become a reality. The House needs someone whose authority, independence and political acuity make them a match for the serried ranks of the Executive. Those who care for this House and its good standing must know that, in electing Menzies Campbell to be Speaker, we should be electing such a person. I urge my colleagues and friends to do so.

5.30 pm

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): I am delighted to second the nomination of Menzies Campbell. He is a very old friend of mine. I have known him and his family--I almost planned to say "the Ming dynasty", but it did not sound so good this morning--much longer than my short time in this place.

I have learned already that there are four parts to the job of Speaker. I did not know until today that we were so much interested in holding the Executive to account. We have certainly had much time before this afternoon to do so. Nevertheless, we try to make the Speaker hold the Executive to account--at least to do his or her best to do so.

We also hope that the Speaker will make this a modern Chamber. It seems to me, as a relative newcomer, that much of our activity still belongs in the 19th century rather than the 21st. Although we may hope that a Speaker will modernise, he or she does not have the authority to do so.

The Speaker must also run a Department with a budget of £150 million. In some ways, I suppose that he or she is a chief executive behind closed doors.

Finally, in a role that has not been much touched on, the office of the Speaker is the focus for democratic parliamentary life in the world, as the mother or father of all Speakers.

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To be a good Speaker, it seems that one needs to understand the nature of this place and to have lived in it long; to have immense wit and charm; to be quick- minded; and to have integrity, ability and great wisdom. I think that Menzies Campbell has those qualities in abundance. I urge the House to be different for a change and to allow a Liberal Democrat a chance to be passed the baton.

Sir Edward Heath: Mr. Menzies Campbell has been proposed and seconded, and I give him the opportunity to submit himself to the House if he so wishes.

5.31 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I formally submit myself to the will of the House, and in doing so I should acknowledge that it is a great honour even to have been considered worthy of nomination.

As we have heard, it is customary to pay tribute to the previous Speaker, and this I gladly do along with all those who have already done so. Madam Speaker Boothroyd has left an indelible mark on this House of Commons. She may not have left a wig, but she has most certainly left a pair of particularly elegant shoes, which it will take someone of some character to aspire to fill.

I never expected to get to Westminster: I joined the Liberal party in 1959. That could hardly have been described as a promising career move. I entered the House only in 1987, at the fifth attempt. I began to feel that I was on course to test to destruction the myth of Robert the Bruce and the spider. My baptism as a candidate was in the general election of February 1974. I hope, Sir Edward, that you will not take offence at the recollection. To stand as a Liberal in a Labour-held west of Scotland industrial constituency took, may I say, a certain amount of independence.

Even when I became a candidate for my present constituency, it took three elections and 11 years to get here. I found, as others both before and since have found, that to be a Back Bencher is often a continual exercise in frustration. For those who have not had the experience, to be a Back Bencher as a member of a minority party is even more an exercise in frustration. It is self-evident to me that a Speaker drawn from a minority party would find it difficult not to reflect that experience in dealing with Back Benchers of all parties.

I am very grateful to my proposer and seconder for the generous way in which they have put the case on my behalf, and in terms--I suspect--rather better than I deserve. Much has been said and written in recent weeks about the relationship between the House and the Government and the Speaker. I have not issued a manifesto or attended hustings--not because I disapprove of them or those who have participated in them, but because I thought it right to conduct myself within existing conventions. I suspect that this will be the last election of any Speaker to which those conventions apply.

I shall now say a little about the relationships to which I have just referred. Our constitution is based on entitlements. I believe that the country is entitled to expect a House of Commons composed of Members of Parliament who will rigorously--and sometimes brutally--hold the Government to account. In turn, Members are entitled to a framework in which they can do that effectively. However, in my experience, it is the

23 Oct 2000 : Column 50

quality and the intensity of scrutiny that make scrutiny effective, and not necessarily the length of time devoted to it. I do not believe that overtired and harassed Members of Parliament, concerned about their families, are likely to fulfil that responsibility of scrutiny--or any of the other obligations imposed on us--as effectively as the electorate would want and are entitled to expect.

Being a Member of Parliament will never be a comfortable job--nor should it be. It is a job that requires sacrifices in return for the privileges it bestows. However, we should not regard self-inflicted discomfort as a badge of courage. Members of Parliament are entitled to something--or rather someone--else: a Speaker who will facilitate their holding the Government to account by using the powers of the Chair to their fullest extent for that purpose; a Speaker who will neither obstruct nor countenance any delay in reforms that the House in its wisdom may decide to implement.

The blunt, unvarnished truth is that, no matter how eloquent the words of proposers, seconders or even candidates themselves, the decision the House makes today is a matter of trust. A candidate who seems to be well qualified today might fail to fulfil expectations, and one who appears less qualified might grow into the job. To chair our proceedings, to manage the House of Commons Commission and to represent the House both at home and abroad--those are onerous responsibilities. If the House were to place its trust in me, I should strain every sinew to ensure that that trust was not misplaced.

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