The Daily Telegraph

Baroness Boothroyd, OM

MP who won all-round respect and admiration as the first woman Speaker of the House of Commons

- Baroness Boothroyd, born October 8 1929, died February 26 2023

BARONESS BOOTHROYD, OM, who has died aged 93, was the former Tiller Girl who in 1992 was elected the first woman Speaker of the House of Commons, a post she held with distinctio­n for eight years.

The office of Speaker originated in the 13th century when the “commons” – representa­tives from the counties and boroughs – were summoned to attend the King “in his court, in his council and in his parliament”. The holder of the office was appointed by the King, but on the nomination of the Commons and since then, whenever there has been a Parliament, there has been a Speaker.

Probably the most famous of Betty Boothroyd’s predecesso­rs was Speaker Lenthall, who stood against Charles I when he sought to arrest and impeach five MPS, setting out as he did so the classic definition of the role: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

Betty Boothroyd, taking the Chair after 19 years as Labour MP for West Bromwich, proved herself a worthy inheritor of Lenthall’s mantle. As “Madam Speaker” between 1992 and 2000, she fought hard to defend the House against threats to its status posed by government­s of both political persuasion­s, and to limit the damage to its reputation caused by a minority of MPS accused of abusing their office.

She managed to do so without compromisi­ng her impartiali­ty; and unlike Margaret Thatcher, who was respected by many but liked by a few, she was popular with all but the most ideologica­l on both the Labour and Tory benches: “She sticks up for the little people,” one unnamed Conservati­ve backbenche­r said in 1998. “When the Tories were in power, everyone had a sneaking suspicion she was helping Labour, but now the tables have turned.”

Before becoming Speaker, Betty Boothroyd had never looked like becoming a leading political figure, though her involvemen­t in politics had begun when she was in her teens. She was more of a doughty fighter, intelligen­t and well-informed rather than intellectu­al.

Over two decades in the House she had made her mark on committees concerned with day-to-day housekeepi­ng rather than matters of policy. This was what qualified her for the job; when John Biffen proposed her for the speakershi­p, he reminded MPS that her long apprentice­ship in the backrooms of politics had ensured she could understand “the fraternity of suffering”.

Betty Boothroyd was an ideal Speaker for the television age, possessing what one journalist called “the glamour of a diva, the bearing of a kindergart­en head and the lip of a barmaid”. She imposed stricter discipline on the Commons, seldom calling a member to speak unless they had been there since the start of the debate.

She developed a number of not-sosubtle ruses to deal with time-wasters – using a simulated yawn to shorten long-winded speeches, or noisily flapping her order paper when MPS raised bogus points of order. Clapping was strictly banned, as was any language she decided was obscene; and she showed admirable decisivene­ss in disciplini­ng the House during long and angry debates on the Bill to ratify the Maastricht Treaty.

Her discipline was always judiciousl­y blended with jocularity, for every successful Speaker has to have a touch of the pantomime dame (or, in her case, principal boy). Her raucous Yorkshire tones, redolent of the packet of cigarettes she smoked each day and her favourite gin and tonic, helped to convey the impression, when she gave MPS a ticking off, that she spoke as one who sympathise­d, having maybe been herself a little naughty in the past.

When she banned pagers from the House, she declared: “I have no objection to instrument­s which merely vibrate.” On another occasion, when offering her personal protection to an MP who claimed he was being menaced by Labour’s bad boy Dennis Skinner, she said: “I know all about high kicking, you know.” Playing up to her image, she took to concluding Prime Minister’s Questions with the barmaid’s catchphras­e “Time’s Up!” “To err is human,” she crisply told one MP who was questionin­g her reading of the rules, “but Erskine May is divine.”

Fears that she might lack gravitas for the role proved unfounded, for Betty Boothroyd never forgot the dignity of her office; indeed, in retirement she was highly critical of the more casual dress and style of John Bercow, fearing such informalit­y could demean the office of Speaker.

She fought hard in other ways to protect the reputation of the House. When John Major’s government was being racked by allegation­s of “sleaze”, she insisted on full investigat­ion, referring cases where necessary to the Committee on Standards and Privileges; but she also appealed to the media to drop generalise­d allegation­s of misconduct.

After the election of a Labour government under Tony Blair, she was no less assiduous in defending backbenche­rs’ rights. In July 1998, she complained to the Leader of the House, Anne Taylor, that her proposed reforms to procedure threatened to downgrade the Commons by turning it into a four-day-week chamber.

She also insisted that those MPS who would not take the Oath of Allegiance should not be allowed to take their seats or enjoy Commons facilities, effectivel­y barring the Sinn Feiners Gerry Adams and Martin Mcguinness at a time when they were being openly invited into 10 Downing Street.

She was keen to get young people interested in politics, as Speaker even making a guest appearance on the BBC’S Saturday-morning children’s programme Live & Kicking.

Betty Boothroyd was born in Dewsbury, now in West Yorkshire, on October 8 1929, the only child of poor textile workers. As a girl she wanted to be a window dresser because she adored haberdashe­ry, but her natural ability as a dancer and gymnast indicated a different career.

While still a schoolgirl, she took tap-dancing classes at Dewsbury’s Temperance Hall, then in the later years of the war fronted a swing band which toured the county in a converted bus, entertaini­ng servicemen for free.

After the war ended, she spent two years as a profession­al dancer, starring, aged 17, in a West End pantomime as a Tiller Girl. “I didn’t really enjoy it much,” she claimed later, “and my father thought it wasn’t a career for a good working-class girl.”

She was in any case already involved in politics. Her parents first aroused her interest, encouragin­g her to attend union meetings held in their house. She joined the Labour League of Youth at 16, and after relinquish­ing her stage career studied at Dewsbury Technical College.

She later became a secretary at Labour’s Transport House headquarte­rs, working in the 1950s for Barbara Castle and Sir Geoffrey de Freitas, with whom she became particular­ly close.

At this stage, Betty Boothroyd was a passionate Bevanite on the Left of the Party, but from the early 1960s she began to move towards the Right. Some attributed this change to a spell from 1960 to 1962 working in America on John F Kennedy’s election team. Others saw the influence of Lord Walston, the Labour pro-european whose secretary she was between 1962 and 1973.

Betty Boothroyd began looking for a seat in 1955, but only made it into the Commons after 18 years and four failed attempts.

She contested Leicester South East at a by-election in 1957 and Peterborou­gh in 1959. She failed to win Nelson and Colne at a by-election in 1968 and Rossendale in 1970. In the meantime, she served for three years as a Hammersmit­h borough councillor.

Her persistenc­e paid off in 1973 when she won a by-election in West Bromwich West. She was already a familiar face at Westminste­r, and it was a measure of her acceptance that after Labour’s return to power in March 1974 she was appointed to the Government Whips’ Office, the most traditiona­l male bastion in both major parties.

There, Bob Mellish, Labour’s Chief

A former Tiller Girl, she said she would personally protect an MP who said he was being bullied, declaring: ‘I know all about high kicking, you know’

Whip, advised her: “Keep your trap shut, girl, and you’ll get on.” She later observed: “Every male chauvinist is some woman’s son.”

In 1975, Betty Boothroyd resigned as a whip to serve on Labour’s delegation to the European Parliament, where she campaigned to join the European Socialist Group against Labour anti-marketeers who wished to remain isolated.

At Westminste­r, she demonstrat­ed her independen­ce by resigning from the Standing Committee on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill to avoid watering down the 1967 Abortion Act. In 1978, she voted against the Labour Government’s proposals on devolution.

In many ways she was ahead of her time: Tony Benn’s diaries describe a fringe meeting of the Right-wing Campaign for Labour Victory at a party regional conference in 1980: “Betty made an awful speech about how we need a radical policy but we can’t be too far ahead of public opinion: that there is great attraction to private investment in public industry and perhaps we should consider giving people a share or ‘divvy’ in the nationalis­ed industries. We want to create a society on the basis of consumer democracy.”

From 1977 she was on the Right’s slate for election to Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), and in 1981 inherited Shirley Williams’s place when the Social Democratic Party was formed.

She was an early and vociferous critic of the Militant Tendency and those she termed its “attendant headbanger­s”. As a member of the NEC’S organisati­on subcommitt­ee she played a prominent role in urging an investigat­ion into Militant. Never one to mince her words, she dubbed the election in 1980 of Michael Foot as Labour leader a “disaster”.

Meanwhile, she spent much of her time in Parliament serving on the Chairmen’s Panel (from which MPS are chosen to chair standing committees on legislatio­n) and the House of Commons Commission, which takes some of the House’s staffing and housekeepi­ng decisions.

Elected Deputy Speaker in July 1987, she soon set the style for which she would become nationally known during the 1990s. When a member asked how she wanted to be addressed, she answered: “Call me Madam!” She created her own ceremonial robes – a navy silk gown with Tudor roses on the sleeves by Hardy Amies.

When Bernard Weatherill retired as Speaker at the 1992 election, five years in the post of deputy had won Betty Boothroyd sufficient esteem for her to fend off a challenge for the post in the first contest since 1951.

More than 70 Conservati­ves, including eight ministers, followed Biffen’s lead in voting for her, in preference to their Cabinet’s preferred choice of Peter Brooke, the former Northern Ireland Secretary.

Betty Boothroyd chose not to wear the Speaker’s traditiona­l wig, but stated that any subsequent Speakers would be free to choose to wear it.

She was acclaimed as Parliament­arian of the Year for 1992 by the Spectator – “the first new Speaker in modern times to show immediatel­y that she is the right man for the job”.

In July 1993, the Government won a vote on Maastricht due to her casting vote – exercised in support of the status quo, as required by rule. However, it was subsequent­ly discovered that the votes had been miscounted and the Government had won by one vote.

In 1997 she was given pride of place in Delhi at India’s celebratio­n of the 50th anniversar­y of Independen­ce.

In July 2000 she announced in a statement to the House that she would resign as Speaker after the summer recess. Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, paid tribute to her as “something of a national institutio­n”, and Major described her as an “outstandin­g Speaker”.

She resigned as Speaker and as an MP that October, and was succeeded by the Scottish Labour MP Michael Martin. She was created a life peer in 2001, and in 2005 was appointed by the Queen to the Order of Merit.

Out of the Commons, Betty Boothroyd spent much of her time in Cyprus, where she had taken up paraglidin­g; however acute renal failure in 2007 followed by open heart surgery forced her to slow down a little.

But she continued to defend the dignity of the Chair, and caution against reforms she saw as damaging. In 2011 she warned that proposals from the Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, for some members to the upper house to be directly elected could leave Britain in constituti­onal disarray: “It is wantonly destructiv­e,” she said. “It is destructio­n that hasn’t been thought through properly.” An elected Lords would rival the Commons, risking power struggles between the two.

Betty Boothroyd was Chancellor of the Open University from 1994 to 2006, and donated some of her personal papers to its archives. She was also an Honorary Fellow of St Hugh’s College, Oxford. She was president of NBFA Assisting the Elderly, a vice president of the Industry and Parliament Trust and patron of the Jo Richardson Community School in Dagenham.

In 2002 she published her autobiogra­phy.

Betty Boothroyd never married.

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 ?? ?? Betty Boothroyd, from the top: in 1992, when she became Speaker; addressing a League of Youth rally at Filey in 1952; during the Nelson and Colne by-election in 1968; and with her Madame Tussauds waxwork in 1998
Betty Boothroyd, from the top: in 1992, when she became Speaker; addressing a League of Youth rally at Filey in 1952; during the Nelson and Colne by-election in 1968; and with her Madame Tussauds waxwork in 1998

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