Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Speaker hustings - place you bets

Quickfire sketch of yesterday's hustings for the Speaker of the House of Commons.

It was 3pm in the Big Brother household and there was nothing more controversial than the Iraq War to discuss in the main room, so the programme-makers decided to hold a competition to see who was best at making a short speech.

Ten of the housemates took part in a hustings for Speaker candidates which, despite being televised, drew a live crowd willing to stand around in a hot room to form an audience for the cameras.

The last time the Attlee Suite was so packed was when Alicia Keys gigged here, but that was a long time ago when Barack Obama was being talked about as the next David Lammy.

In the crowded contest to see who the best speaker was, there could be no greater contrast than between Sir Patrick Cormack and Parmjit Dhanda, who sat next to each other. Sir Patrick, a rotund, clubbable Tory who lists his hobby as "fighting Philistines", has one of these mellifluous voices that the voice-over artist for Wind in the Willows would willingly gargle several barrels of port to achieve. He sounds lovely and posh for a boy born into modest circumstances in Grimsby.

Parmjit Dhanda, whose parents came from India to become a cleaner and a lorry driver, was not even born when Sir Patrick entered parliament in 1970. In "plain, blunt English" the Labour MP spoke about pushing the pendulum to swing away from the Commons to the people.

"At the current rate of change it will take 100 years for this place to be representative of Britain," he said.

He was right. This is an election to become the Speaker, not a speaker, so being young, ethnic, good-looking and straight-talking, Dhanda has no chance. He may not be Speaker next Monday, but he's on the way to being someone.

For a TV audience, most of the candidates were the Rt Hon embodiment of men in grey suits, beset by scandal and bewailing their love for the chamber and the mother of parliaments like the Lost Boys of democracy.

The part of Jade Goody (RIP) was played by Ann Widdecombe, possessing as she admitted herself some of the "vulgar qualities" required to connect with the public.

No speaker could be the Angel Gabriel, she said, but she promised a self-denying ordinance not to appear on Have I Got News For You for the year she wants the job. If she could control Merton and Hislop then the chamber of the House of Commons should be a doddle.

In keeping with the times, everyone promised "reform" and none more so than John Bercow, the former right-winger so loathed by fellow Tories that Labour MPs will vote for him in revenge. He styled himself the "clean-break candidate", an agent of overdue change and reform - that word again.

The Conservatives now want Margaret Beckett, the wise old owl candidate, as the "stop Bercow" ticket, but you'd have to have the mind of Machiavelli and the soul of Simon Cowell to calculate that outcome.

If this were a TV programme, there would be an old-fashioned telephone vote, but this is Westminster so they are using a novel system to vote for the new Speaker, one they've never used before - it's called a ballot box.

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