It was a total surprise to me in 1997 to find myself being nominated as Deputy Speaker, in actual fact Chairman of Ways and Means.
Up to that point I had not really had any close dealings with Betty Boothroyd. It can happen that way in the House of Commons. There are 650 of us. We do not all cross each other’s paths on a frequent basis. Members mostly make friends within their own party, often because they have known each other for years beforehand. Friendships across the House more often than not stem from working together on a Select Committee or an All Party Group. Overseas travel sometimes enables you to get to know someone who up until then has just been a member of ‘the party opposite’. With Betty Boothroyd and me, none of these had applied. When she was Deputy Speaker and in her first term as Speaker, my only dealings with her were as supplicant – going up to the Chair to enquire whether I was going to be called. Quite properly this was a slightly stiff encounter with no hint of a blossoming professional partnership.
In the days when Deputy Speakers were effectively proposed by the whips, I do not know whether an incumbent Speaker was given the opportunity to disapprove. Whatever, my name was put before the House and approved. Thereafter a hitherto distant (to me) person became a significant presence in my parliamentary life. We began to get to know each other very well. I had not formed any particular view of Betty as a Deputy Speaker, but there was no doubting her personality and authority when she took the top job. Perhaps she revelled in the honour of being the first woman Speaker, but I think that the House took pleasure from the way in which she exuded authority. There was no question about who was in charge.
To find myself by her side virtually every working day was at first daunting, but quickly became a huge pleasure. I like to think that she was soon in no doubt as to my complete loyalty. Certainly she was increasingly prepared to trust me to oversee some of the trickier occasions to arise. And, of course, I was not long in appreciating the warmth of her character and her great insights regarding our parliamentary colleagues.
Betty became a hugely respected national (and international) figure and the Commons had credit by association. She was a generous and entertaining host in Speaker’s House where I was privileged to be a frequent visitor. Her portrait in the traditional robes of her office met you at the entrance to the state rooms. I continue to think of her in her pomp and in command as that image reminds.
Sir Alan Haselhurst is Chairman of the House of Commons Administration Committee and a member of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art. The Works of Art Committee provides advice to the Speaker and the Curator’s Office on the management, care and interpretation of over 8000 works of art in the Parliamentary Art Collection. It is also committed to acquiring works of art that depict issues and individuals of historical significance whilst improving the representation of women parliamentarians in the Collection.