The 1972 Reforms and thereafter
26. As a result of the criticisms expressed in 1971,
the Procedure Committee conducted an inquiry into the election
of a Speaker.
Although prompted initially by the complaint about lack of consultation,
the Committee also considered more purely procedural matters.
The procedure according to ancient usage, as set out in paragraph
17 above, remained in force at this time. "Lack of procedure"
might be an apter description, as in many respects the election
of a Speaker took place in a procedural limbo. The Standing Orders
were deemed not to apply to proceedings;
the presiding officer could not speak, deal with points of order,
or accept a dilatory motion; if only one candidate was proposed,
a motion was made which would be agreed to without the question
being put; if more than one candidate was proposed, the House
would debate two substantive motions simultaneously. All these
practices, however time-honoured in respect of the particular
occasion, were contrary to the House's normal way of conducting
27. The Committee received much evidence critical
of these traditional practices, and concluded, in a report published
in January 1972, that it was necessary to make significant changes.
One proposal they considered but rejected was that of election
by secret ballot. This they opposed on the grounds that "it
would be wrong to depart from the general principle that Members
should be publicly accountable for the votes they cast in their
capacities as Members of Parliament"; and because they thought
it likely that a ballot would lead to canvassing and lobbying,
which they believed would be undesirable.
28. The Committee's principal recommendations were
(i) The presiding
officer at the election of a Speaker should no longer be the Clerk
but a Member. If the Speaker announces his retirement in mid-session,
he should if possible occupy the Chair until his successor is
elected. On all other occasions the Chair should be taken by the
backbench Member with the longest unbroken period of service who
is present in the House (usually "the Father of the House").
(ii) If a single candidate is proposed,
the question should be put.
(iii) Motions for the election of further
candidates should be moved in the form of amendments to the original
motion. (That is, a motion would be made and the question proposed,
that a Member do take the Chair as Speaker; if an amendment was
proposed, to leave out the name first put forward and insert another,
the House would decide upon this amendment; as soon as this, or
a subsequent, amendment was agreed to, the House would decide
on the main question as amended; if no amendment was agreed to,
the House would decide on the main question in its original form.)
(iv) Proceedings should be subject to certain
provisions of the Standing Orders, and the presiding Member should
be granted some of the usual powers of the Chair, for instance
in respect of dilatory motions.
(v) In other respects proceedings should
follow the procedure established by ancient usage.
27. These recommendations were adopted by the House,
on 8 August 1972, and embodied in Standing Order No. 1 (Election
of the Speaker), which has not been subsequently amended and remains
the basis of Speakership elections.
28. One point should be noted about the rationale
underlying the 1972 changes. The rule that proposal of further
candidates be made by way of amendment to the original motion
has the effect that the House must take a decision on those candidates
before it considers the candidate first proposed. The Committee
hoped that this would serve to demonstrate the lack of
support for minor candidates and thus enable a unanimous decision
to be taken on the candidate with the widest support: "if
this question [on the second candidate] were negatived by a large
majority, the unanimous election of the first, or of another candidate,
might thereby be secured, a result which Your Committee believe
to be highly desirable".
Secondly, the assumption underlying this and other recommendations
continued to be that a 'vetting' of suitable candidates would
take place behind the scenes by the Government in consultation
with the Opposition and others, with a view to putting a sole
candidate, or at most two, before the House. It is clear that
the 1972 reforms were not intended to deal with a situation in
which a multiplicity of candidates stood for election.
29. The new arrangements made in 1972 were not put
to the test for 20 years, the elections of Speaker Thomas in 1976
and Speaker Weatherill in 1983 being unopposed. The latter election
is interesting as an example of howas has happened many
times in the history of the Speakershipthe actual political
dynamics of a situation may be concealed behind a formally unanimous
result. Prior to the election it was known that the then Prime
Minister, Mrs Thatcher, favoured the election of Sir Humphrey
Atkins, a former Conservative Chief Whip and cabinet minister
who had resigned his post at the Foreign Office in the aftermath
of the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands the previous
year. However, it rapidly became apparent that the Conservative
backbenches were not willing to support a candidate with such
close and recent links with government. Sir Humphrey accordingly
did not contest the election, and indeed was Mr Weatherill's proposer.
A striking feature of this case is the assertion of independence
by the backbenches: even a Prime Minister at the height of her
influence within her party, and who had just been returned to
power with a majority of 144, was unable to secure the election
of her preferred candidate for the Chair.
30. In 1992 the first formally contested election
under the 1972 rules took place. The name of Mr Peter Brooke was
first proposed to the House; an amendment substituting the name
of Miss Betty Boothroyd was agreed to on division, by 372 votes
to 238, and the main question was agreed to unanimously. One of
the reasons for the defeat of Mr Brooke was undoubtedly that he
was seen as having too close links with government, having been
a Secretary of State in the previous Parliament. Madam Speaker
Boothroyd was re-elected in 1997.
31. In 1996 the Procedure Committee reviewed the
arrangements for election of a Speaker, as part of a short inquiry
into proceedings at the start of a Parliament.
The Committee commented that at the time of the 1992 election
"there was some feeling ... that discord within the Government
side of the House had prevented the emergence of a candidate on
that side who might have enjoyed greater support [than Peter Brooke],
but that the system of election did not allow that to be put to
the test". The Committee said that it had "little sympathy
with that view; the onus is plainly on the parties concerned to
agree on their favoured candidate and failure to do so cannot
be attributed to procedural obstacles".
The Committee thus restated the traditional view that it was a
matter for the major parties, separately or together, to agree
on a "favoured candidate". The Committee concluded that
although the 1972 system had some "inherent weaknesses",
in particular "the burden laid on the Father of the House
to decide who is to catch his eye to move the first candidate",
nonetheless "there is in our view no better system and many
worse", and they therefore recommended no change to existing
32. On 12 July 2000 Madam Speaker Boothroyd announced
her intention of resigning, both as Speaker and as a Member, "immediately
before the House returns from the summer recess".
During the period following Madam Speaker's announcement, concern
was expressed as to whether the existing election arrangements
would deliver a fair outcome in the event of a considerable number
of candidates allowing their names to be put forward. Some Members
attempted to persuade Madam Speaker to delay her resignation,
in order to allow the House to consider a change to the election
arrangements; but without success. The House accordingly met on
23 October, being the first day after the summer adjournment,
to elect a new Speaker, with Sir Edward Heath as Father of the
House in the Chair.
33. Sir Edward began by making a short announcement.
He told the House that under Standing Order No. 1, it was necessary
to proceed forthwith to the choice of a Speaker, and added that:
"the Standing Order
therefore means that all I can preside over is the election of
a Speaker by the means laid down in the Standing Order. Although
that procedure may sound complex, it is exactly the same as that
adopted by the House in deciding on any motion to which amendments
are offered. First, the motion is moved. If there are amendments,
they are then moved and decided on. Once an amendment has been
carried, the main question, as amended, is put to the House for
decision. If no amendment is carried and no more are forthcoming,
the main question is put for decision."
34. It immediately became apparent that there was
much unhappiness within the House about proceeding to an election
under these rules. Points of order were heard for nearly half
an hour. One senior backbencher, Mr Tony Benn, sought to move
a motion amending Standing Order No. 1, to allow the House to
proceed to an election based upon a ballot, followed by a run-off
vote between the two candidates highest placed in the ballot.
Sir Edward declined to accept Mr Benn's motion. He said that the
Standing Order gave him no discretion but to proceed forthwith
with an election under the existing rules. In order to assist
the House, he announced the order in which he proposed to call
the proposers of the 12 candidates who were standing. The election
then proceeded. Sir Edward first called Mr Peter Snape to move
that Mr Michael J. Martin do take the Chair of this House as Speaker.
Eleven other names were put forward by way of amendments to this
motion, and each was successively voted down. There being no further
amendments, Sir Edward put the question on the original motion,
and Mr Martin was elected Speaker on division, by 370 votes to
8. The whole proceedings had taken some seven hours.
35. We have no doubt that Sir Edward Heath acted
correctly in declining to accept Mr Benn's proposed motion. Standing
Order No. 1 grants the Father of the House during a Speakership
election some of the usual powers of the Speaker.
It is clearboth from the wording of the Standing Order
itself and from the recommendations by the Procedure Committee
in 1972 which it implementsthat these powers are conferred
solely in order to assist the Chair in conducting the election
of a new Speaker according to the provisions of the Standing Order.
It would be a perverse construction of that Order to suppose that
it entitled the Chair or the House to proceed with a debate on
setting aside the other provisions of the Order, or indeed with
any other business.
36. Nevertheless, we understand the sense of frustration
felt by many Members that the timing of the election last October
did not allow the House at that time to conduct a debate on the
rules governing the Speakership election. It is in order to allow
the House to conduct that debate, and to do so on a well-informed
basis, that we have carried out the present inquiry. We have sought
to answer two questions. Is there a case for replacing the 1972
system of election? And if so, with what alternative system should
it be replaced?