The questions facing the Lord Speaker hopefuls
To the Royal Robing Room for the Hansard Society's hustings session with the rival candidates for Lord Speaker. The Robing Room is an astounding place.
Even by the standards of the Palace of Westminster the décor is migraine-inducing - gilt and gothic VR monograms everywhere, and appalling kitsch murals on an Arthurian theme. And sat at one end of the room, five of the six candidates (Lord Redesdale was unable to attend) all promising to do as little as possible in the Chamber and to avoid at all costs turning into a Commons style Mr Speaker, bellowing "Order! Order!" at unruly peers.
The Lords prides itself on being a self-regulating house. This rather intangible ethic is at the heart of the way it considers legislation; peers are not guillotined as in the Commons, where strict timetabling of consideration of bills means that vast tracts of them are sometimes undebated.
In the Lords they agree to what they consider a reasonable timetable, and everything comes under the microscope. And what most peers fear most of all is that the Lord Speaker, currently virtually powerless in the Chamber, will become the instrument by which that approach is undermined. So any move to give the Lord Speaker any powers at all is regarded with great suspicion by the old hands.
Even the current Goodlad proposals (see previous post) which include the suggestion that the Lord Speaker should be able to say which party (note, not which individual peer) should speak next at Question Time and during ministerial statements, has caused much muttering about the thin end of the wedge.
This is even while peers have started to notice how disorderly Question Time is becoming, with valuable minutes whiled away as rival peers demand the right to speak, each shouting "My Lords, My Lords" until one finally gives way.
So do any of the potential successors to Lady Hayman think that a more assertive approach from the occupant of the Woolsack would be a good idea? Who knows? The vaguest hints, plus the mantra that all this is "a matter for the House," were the only responses that could be prised out of the candidates. Some did canter through the slightly surprising argument that the view from the Woolsack is not great, and that it is in fact easier for the Leader or a minister to police things from the Government Front Bench. Ex-dentist Lord Colwyn suggesting a surgery-style hydraulic mechanism should be built into it…..
After questioning which covered such matters as whether the Lord Speaker should wear court dress, whether the ancient office of Lord Chancellor which had once included the role of Speaker of the Lords should be revived, and whether the prayers which open proceedings each day should become a multi-faith event, there was little to choose between the candidates - maybe peers could detect some subtle variations in their attitudes, but it seemed to me that they were more concerned to weigh character and attitude.
Lord Howe - the former chancellor - mused on the possibility that the Lords might in due course find itself presided over by "a Tonypandy" a reference to Mr Speaker George Thomas (later Viscount Tonypandy) one of the most powerful characters to preside over the Commons. If such a figure emerged, he predicted, they would stamp their identity on the House.
The contenders in (my) order of probability, are: Lord Goodlad, Lady D'Souza, Lord Colwyn, Lady Harris, Lord Desai and Lord Redesdale. None displayed any Tonypandy tendencies at the hustings.