The race to be next Speaker has not, it has to be said, yet caught fire. I'm doubting whether it will. Most of the comment so far has centred on the fact that John Bercow cannot command support across the House. And in my opinion that should rule him out. We have just seen the consequences of electing a Speaker whose abilities are called into question by half the House. Frank Field recognised that he couldn't continue because of this, and it is a shame John Bercow does not.
Parmjit Dhanda has fought a good campaign but no one seriously believes he will win. Sir Michael Lord is seen as too 'old guard' and Richard Shepherd is seen as too erratic.
It seems to me there are seven serious candidates - Margaret Beckett, John Bercow, Sir Patrick Cormack, Sir Alan Haselhurst, Sir George Young, Ann Widdecombe and Sir Alan Beith.
I'm not going to go into the pros and cons of all seven candidates. Most are obvious. And they all, have plus points. I'd love to see Sir Patrick Cormack in the Speaker's Chair. His love of Parliament is transparent.
I'd also love to see Ann Widdecombe don the wig. Back in March 2006 I wrote on the blog that I felt Ann Widdecombe would make a good Speaker. Indeed a poll on the blog showed that she had widespread support from blog readers. I wrote: "The Ann Widdecombe campaign for Speaker starts here!" Ann is a good friend of mine and I think she would make a fantastic speaker, but I think she suffers from two drawbacks. I have my doubts about her ability to garner support across the House and I just don't believe that an interim Speaker is a good idea. Superficially I can see why it might be, and if someone could guarantee there won't be an election until May 2010, that's one thing. But what's the point of electing a Speaker who could only be in office until October? Also, the last thing you should do in a new House of Commons, containing maybe 300 new MPs, is ask them to vote for a new Speaker when most of them won't have any knowledge of the likely candidates. So much as I deeply regret it - and she's a dear friend - if I had a vote, it would be going to another candidate.
For me, the outstanding candidate in virtually every respect is Sir Alan Haselhurst. Why? Firstly, he has proved he can do the job. When Michael Martin was ill for three months, Sir Alan stood in and received plaudits from all sides of the House for how he conducted the business of the House. He's fair but firm and doesn't suffer fools gladly. He has also shown in the hustings that he recognises the need for the role of Speaker to change. He wants to become an advocate for Parliament as well as lead a consensus for reform.
Six months ago, he would have been considered one of the favourites for the job. The fact that Labrokes are now quoting odds of 40/1 is a reflection of the fact that the media feel he has been damaged by the expenses scandal. Well, up to a point. But if he is damged, isn't Bercow (who had to repay CGT)? Isn't Beckett, over her gardening claims? Isn't Sir George Young? Why is Sir Alan being singled out?
I believe Sir Alan Haselhurst has a good chance of coming through the middle. It can be a very powerful position being most people's second choice. And from my soundings among MPs from all parties, that's the position he has. If he can negotiate the first few ballots and is still in the final four or five, he stands a very good chance of coming through the middle.
And that's why I have broken the habit of a lifetime and opened an account with Ladbrokes. I have put £100 on Sir Alan Haselhurst winning at odds of 40/1. I'm probably mad, and that bet will probably give him the kiss of death, but logic tells me that 40/1 are mad odds when you consider the system of 'knock out' voting which will take place on Monday.
UPDATE: It appears that since my bet, his odds have come down to 25/1.
UPDATE 8pm: His odds are now 16/1 with Ladbrokes!