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Candidates battle it out to replace Commons Speaker Bercow

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image copyright UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The nine MPs vying to replace John Bercow as Commons Speaker have been quizzed by journalists in Westminster.

Mr Bercow - who has held the office since 2009 - is standing down on 31 October, with MPs to elect his replacement on 4 November.

Several Tory candidates accused Mr Bercow of being biased - something he has always denied.

One hopeful, deputy Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, suggested there was a drugs problem in Parliament.

Questioned on whether there was an issue with alcohol at Westminster, Sir Lindsay said: "It's not just drink we've got to catch out, there is a drug problem, and I genuinely believe that counselling and real support should be available for all staff and members."

  • Commons Speaker John Bercow to stand down

Asked to clarify what he meant, he added: "I think, I believe there will be a drug problem - there is a drug problem right across this country.

"I don't believe that somebody who walks in here may not be tempted into drugs, and what I'm saying is that we should have health and wellbeing in place for drink and drug counselling and real support for anybody."

All three deputy Speakers - Sir Lindsay, Dame Rosie Winterton and Dame Eleanor Laing - are taking part in the contest to replace Mr Bercow.

The candidates also argued over the right of women MPs to breastfeed in the chamber during the two-hour hustings event.

Dame Eleanor said it was "not necessary", adding: "Been there, done that - we didn't have maternity leave when I had a baby... and if I managed to bring up a healthy child without breastfeeding in the chamber, then it can't be all that difficult."

Another candidate, Conservative MP Sir Henry Bellingham, agreed, suggesting it could be done in "an absolute emergency... but as a rule I would say no".

But Labour's Harriet Harman - one of the first MPs to breastfeed her child in the Commons - said while "most women would not want to breastfeed in the chamber or in a select committee", they should be allowed to if they chose.

Conservative MP Shailesh Vara agreed, arguing: "We can't on the one hand bang on about equality for everyone and then actually say, on that front, we won't give equality to women and the need to breastfeed."

'Playground bully'

The candidates were quizzed about impartiality, and what they would bring to the role.

Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh said Mr Bercow was "perceived by a large part of the nation not to be impartial".

He said the next Speaker needed to be "more in the mould" of Betty Boothroyd, the former Labour MP who held the position between 1992 and 2000, and who this week celebrated her 90th birthday.

Mr Vara, said he believed Mr Bercow had "tarnished the role of Speaker with his biasness", and described him as a "verbal playground bully".

He said he wanted to be the first Speaker from an ethnic minority, adding that it would send "a powerful message to every single child in this country - black, white, brown, boy, girl" that if "that bloke Vara can make it, then so can I".

image copyrightUK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
image captionThe Speaker's job is to keep order in the Commons

Ms Harman said the role of Speaker was to be the "champion of Parliament in our parliamentary democracy", and electing a woman would show Parliament was "no longer an old boys' club".

Knee breeches

The candidates vied with each other to deplore the chaotic scenes in the Commons that surrounded Mr Johnson's unlawful prorogation of Parliament.

Labour's Meg Hillier said: "I think it was one of the most unedifying moments in our parliamentary history to have all that singing, shouting. It was very uncomfortable."

Labour's Chris Bryant said he hated the "chaos in the chamber", adding: "I didn't think that did us any favours."

Asked about how he viewed the Speaker's role, he told journalists: "I think having an impartial Speaker is absolutely essential to the good functioning of our democracy."

Conservative Sir Henry said he would he would revert to wearing a wig, winged collar and knee breeches - the traditional Speaker's uniform last worn by Bernard Weatherill, who was in the Speaker's chair between 1983 and 1992.

"I think we do have to keep modernising, but I also believe in traditional values," Sir Henry told the meeting.

"The reason why High Court judges and judges wear wigs and gowns is because it is about the office they hold."

The nine candidates are:

  • Sir Henry Bellingham - Conservative MP for North West Norfolk since 1983
  • Chris Bryant - former minister and shadow Commons leader; Labour MP for Rhondda since 2001
  • Harriet Harman - former minister and deputy Labour leader; Labour MP since 1982, for Peckham and its successor constituency Camberwell
  • Meg Hillier - chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee and former minister; Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch since 2005
  • Sir Lindsay Hoyle - elected Labour MP for Chorley in 1997; elected deputy Speaker in 2010
  • Dame Eleanor Laing - elected Conservative MP for Epping Forest in 1997; elected deputy Speaker in 2013
  • Sir Edward Leigh - Conservative MP for Gainsborough since 1983; former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee
  • Shailesh Vara - Conservative MP for North West Cambridgeshire since 2005; former Northern Ireland minister
  • Dame Rosie Winterton - elected Labour MP for Doncaster Central in 1997; former Labour chief whip; elected deputy Speaker in 2017

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