LONDON // The archaic system of electing a new speaker of the House of Commons finally resolved itself late last night when controversial MP John Bercow was elected to the post. After three rounds of voting over several hours, the contest became a straight fight between Mr Bercow, a relatively young and sometimes abrasive Conservative MP on the left of the party, and Sir George Young, 67, a fellow Tory who finished as a runner-up in the last election for speaker nine years ago.
Initially, there had been 10 in the field but, amid controversy and claims of skulduggery, the numbers had been whittled down during a laborious voting process. The resignation of Michael Martin, the outgoing speaker in a post dating back to 1377, took effect on Sunday after he had become the first incumbent to be forced out of office for more than 300 years. Mr Martin's "crime" was that he was adjudged to be a stumbling block to the reforms that the so-called Mother of Parliaments so badly needs after weeks of scandals over dozens of MPs who have been fiddling their generous expenses allowances.
But the task of finding a new speaker - the supposedly impartial chairman of Commons business and parliament's representative to the monarch and House of Lords - has proved as controversial as it has been cumbersome. The 10 MPs who put themselves forward each argued that he or she would be the best man or woman to embark on the task of restoring public faith in British politics. Yesterday afternoon, each had the opportunity of addressing MPs before voting started. All 646 MPs got one vote in a secret ballot, although Prime Minister Gordon Brown absented himself from the process.
Under the existing system, the person who finishes last on the first round of voting is eliminated plus anyone else who gets less than five per cent of the ballots. Then the process is repeated until someone gets 50 per cent or more of the votes, each round taking about an hour to complete. In the event, several would-be szpeakers dropped out as the voting progressed when it became clear they could not win.
Margaret Beckett, a Labour MP and former foreign secretary, had emerged recently as the favourite for the job because many Conservatives had taken against Mr Bercow - their own party's early front-runner -because, ironically, he was considered too left wing. David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, was believed not to want 46-year-old Mr Bercow to get the job, which, in turn, made Mr Bercow a favourite of some ministers, including Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary and confidant of Mr Brown.
Then, Mrs Beckett's chances took a severe a knock yesterday morning when Stephen Pound, a fellow Labour MP, accused government whips of pushing her candidacy. "There is a lot of skulduggery going on," he said in a BBC interview. "It is a depressing example of MPs looking inwards to their own advantage when we really should be looking outwards. "A lot of it looks like the same old, stale corruption, I fear. 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."
In the end, it all came down to personalities as all 10 candidates had pledged themselves to fundamental and very similar overhauls of a system that has left politics in such bad odour with the British public. Despite the fact that the post of speaker commands a handsome salary and very generous pension, the successful candidate is still dragged to the speaker's chair by fellow MPs in a supposed show of reluctance.
This custom dates back centuries to a time when individuals really were reluctant to take on the job because of all-powerful monarchs' habit of lopping off their heads if they did not like what was going on in the Commons. Not that even the new speaker is likely to be in the job for long. A general election is likely next spring and Mr Cameron, assuming the Conservatives win, is thought likely to want yet another change when he takes moves in to Downing Street.
Before Mr Martin, the last speaker to be forced out by fellow MPs was Sir John Trevor who, in March, 1695, was found guilty by the House of Commons of "a high crime and misdemeanour". It turned out that Sir John, one of England's most senior judges, had accepted a bribe of 1,000 guineas from the Corporation of London to assist a controversial bill through the house. The bill concerned paying for the care of orphans, from which the corporation stood to gain thousands of pounds in government funds.
Though Sir John was expelled from the Commons, he was never asked to repay the bribe and, ironically, retained his judicial position until his death in 1717 at the age of 70. Sir John was a colourful character who fought a duel with his opponent in the campaign for his parliamentary seat. He was also terribly cross-eyed, resulting in MPs wanting "to catch the speaker's eye" often mistakenly getting up to speak when he was, in fact, giving the nod to someone else.
Despite the maelstrom of problems whirling round the House of Commons at the moment, at least the latest speaker's eyesight is up to the job. firstname.lastname@example.org