Friday, May 18, 2007

Mr Speaker Weatherill

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

The best Speaker

Bernard Weatherill, who died earlier this month, was the greatest Commons Speaker of modern times. George Thomas was the darling of the media, but his manner was unctuous and he was unwilling to stand up to Mrs Thatcher. Betty Boothroyd was impossible to dislike, if only because she reminded you of Mollie Sugden. The present speaker is less endearing, though he has been unfairly treated by snobbish Tory journalists. But Bernard Weatherill was the best of them all.

Last Thursday MPs took time out to pay tribute to him and exchange anecdotes. By now everyone knows that Weatherill always carried a silver thimble to remind him of his origins in his father’s Saville Row tailoring business. And that when first elected he heard one Tory grandee complain to another: "I don't know what this place is coming to, Tom, they've got my tailor in here now."

But other stories were less familiar. Weatherill served in the Indian Army during World War II and become a vegetarian after seeing the 1942 famine in Bengal. He spoke fluent Urdu.

Bernard Weatherill served as Conservative deputy chief whip between 1974 and 1979, eventually helping to engineer the defeat of Jim Callaghan on a confidence motion. But Mrs Thatcher had noticed his support for proportional representation in Scottish elections, so there was no position for him in her first government.

When he became speaker in 1983 he soon established himself as the champion of back-benchers’ rights. It was made known to him that Mrs Thatcher did not appreciate this, but he faced her down and defeated the subsequent whispering campaign against him in the press that tried to make out that he was not up to the job.

His approach typified intelligent conservatism, maintaining the pageantry of the House - he was the last Speaker to wear a wig - while allowing in the television cameras. And everyone who spoke mentioned his charm, modesty and old-fashioned courtesy.

The best anecdote was that told by Peter Viggers. One evening the hot-tempered Eric Heffer was being barracked by an obnoxious young Tory MP as he spoke. Eventually he snapped, shouting “Shut up, you stupid git!”

From the Chair, Mr Speaker Weatherill said, “Order, order. I think I’m meant to say that.”

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