Betty Boothroyd obituary: formidable parliamentarian who became Madam Speaker

First female Speaker of the House gained international fame for her brisk, good-humoured style

black and white photo of young Boothroyd with her hand in her hair in front of Big Ben
Boothroyd outside Parliament in 1959

Betty Boothroyd, who died last month aged 93, “overturned more than 700 years of parliamentary tradition in 1992 when she became the first woman to be elected Speaker of the House of Commons”, said The Guardian. Over the next eight years, she would gain “international fame for her brisk, good-humoured style and for the warmth and wit she exuded – along with a whiff of glamour”.

She’d first made headlines for declining to wear the Speaker’s full-bottomed wig, said The Scotsman – a break with tradition that did nothing to dent her authority. One of the “outstanding” occupants of the Speaker’s green chair, and also one of the most popular, she was a formidable and imposing presence, who could quieten a bunch of rowdy MPs with a raucous shout, and defuse tense or dangerous situations in the Chamber with a broad Yorkshire quip.

Most popular alternative to the Queen

Once, a newspaper poll found that she was the public’s most popular alternative to the Queen. Betty Boothroyd was born in Dewsbury, in 1929, the mill town known for producing “shoddy”, an inferior form of cloth. Her childhood, in a back-to-back house, was impoverished, said The Times – but she insisted that there was nothing shoddy about it.

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She was an only child and was close to her parents, who were both textile workers, and both highly political: their house was a hive of Labour activity. Having failed the 11 plus, Betty won a place at Dewsbury College of Commerce and Art; her father envisaged for her a comfortable life as shorthand typist, but Betty had always loved dancing – she’d performed in the local pantomime, and had toured military bases with a dance band during the War.

And aged 17 she moved to London, where she performed with the Tiller Girls in the West End. Her showbiz career didn’t take off, however, and before long she had set her sights on politics instead.

In 1952 she found a secretarial job at Transport House, Labour’s HQ; later, she worked for various Labour MPs, including Barbara Castle. She started looking for a seat in 1955, and fought five elections over 18 years before finally winning West Bromwich West in 1973.

Political cheerleading

At the start of her political career, she had been on Labour’s left, said The Daily Telegraph, but she had moved slowly to the right (possibly as a result of a period she spent in Washington working for John F. Kennedy’s election campaign); and in the 1980s she made her name as a staunch opponent of the “headbangers” in the Militant Tendency.

In 1987, she became Deputy Speaker, and when Bernard Weatherill announced that he planned to stand down, the Conservative MP John Biffen nominated Boothroyd to replace him.

She was not a radical Speaker: some criticised her for failing to make the job of an MP easier for women with families – by, for instance, allowing new mothers to breastfeed in the Chamber. If changes were to be made, she believed MPs should make them. She did, however, try to resist the growing practice of ministers announcing policy on the Today programme instead of in the Commons.

Stickler for the rules

In the Chamber, she was a stickler for the rules, yet her “discipline was judiciously blended with jocularity”, and enforced with a touch of the pantomime dame. She’d yawn ostentatiously, or start fanning herself with her papers, if she felt an MP was wasting time; and to wrap up Prime Minister’s Questions, she’d use the barmaid’s cry: “Time’s up!”

Although the Labour Party remained with her “like the dirt under your fingernails”, as she put it, she was rarely accused of partisanship. There were failures, however. Boothroyd said her worst moment in the job was when – in defiance of her repeated attempts to silence him – Michael Mates used his 28-minute resignation speech in 1993 to attack the Serious Fraud Office’s handling of the case of the tycoon Asil Nadir. She stood down in 2000, and was made a life peer in 2001. In retirement, her hobbies included paragliding.

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