Baroness Boothroyd, first female Speaker of the House of Commons, has died aged 93 | Politics News
The first female Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, has died aged 93.
Current Speaker of the House Sir Lindsay Hoyle, said: “Not only was Betty Boothroyd an inspiring woman, but she was also an inspirational politician, and someone I was proud to call my friend.
“To be the first woman Speaker was truly ground-breaking and Betty certainly broke that glass ceiling with panache.”
“Betty was one of a kind. A sharp, witty and formidable woman – and I will miss her,” he added.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said she was a “remarkable woman” and an “inspiration” who brought “passion, wit and sense of fairness” to politics. “My thoughts go out to her family,” he said.
Former PM Theresa May said she was “saddened” to hear of the baroness’ death, adding: “Betty was formidable in the chair, but earned the respect and admiration of the whole House. I will always remember her inimitable style, but also her immense personal warmth and kindness.”
Born into a working-class family in Dewsbury in 1929, Baroness Boothroyd was introduced to politics at an early age through her mother’s membership of the women’s section of the Labour Party.
Often taken to rallies where Labour giants including Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan would address large crowds, Baroness Boothroyd would later follow in their footsteps.
But not before the talented dancer’s dreams of taking the West End by storm with dance group the Tiller Girls were cruelly put to an end by just the age of 25 due to a foot infection.
The political stage would soon follow, the journey beginning with a move to London in the early 1950s after getting a job as secretary to two Labour MPs – Barbara Castle and Geoffrey de Freitas.
Baroness Boothroyd twice unsuccessfully stood to become an MP during this decade – finishing fewer than 7,000 votes behind the Conservative candidate in her first attempt in the Leicester South East by-election in 1957.
Following the two knock-backs, Baroness Boothroyd travelled to the United States in 1960 where she worked on John F Kennedy’s campaign after he was elected as the Democratic candidate for president.
Baroness Boothroyd travelled across America with Democratic senator Estes Kefauver before moving on to work for left-wing Republican congressman Silvio Conte.
After two years across the pond, she returned to the UK where she worked as a political assistant to Labour minister Lord Harry Walston.
In 1973, Baroness Boothroyd became an MP herself at the fifth attempt, successfully securing the seat of West Bromwich for the Labour Party.
She is believed to have said this would have been her final attempt at entering Parliament – but won the contest with a majority of more than 8,000 votes.
She became one of 27 female MPs in the House of Commons at the time.
Baroness Boothroyd went on to become an assistant government whip for the Labour Party and kept a keen eye on ensuring MPs were in the Commons to vote on key pieces of legislation.
In 1975, she was elected a member of the European Parliament and became a vocal advocate of the common market.
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Baroness Boothroyd’s political influence continued to grow after she was appointed to both the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen in 1979.
In 1987, the Labour MP was appointed deputy Speaker of the Commons – a position she would hold until 1992 when Bernard “Jack” Weatherill announced he was stepping down as Speaker.
By this time, Baroness Boothroyd had proven herself to hold great authority and conviction and was persuaded by some Labour colleagues to run to replace him.
Her appointment was contested by Conservative MP John Brooke, but Baroness Boothroyd won a vote by 372 votes to 238.
With the result, Baroness Boothroyd became the first female Speaker of the Commons and the first opposition MP to be elected to the role, having secured overwhelming support from both sides of the House.
“Elect me for what I am, and not for what I was born,” she said in her acceptance speech.
During her first time in the chair as Speaker, she was asked by then Burnley MP Peter Pike: “What do we call you?”
“Call me Madam,” she replied – to a packed Commons chamber.
Baroness Boothroyd modernised the role of Speaker, refusing to wear the traditional wig – a decision which was approved by MPs – and closing Prime Minister’s Questions every week with her catchphrase: “Time’s up!”
She stuck to the rules and had a no-nonsense style, quickly becoming a household name as rolling television coverage of the Commons began.
Baroness Boothroyd once reminded MPs that her role was “to ensure that the holders of an opinion, however unpopular, are allowed to put across their points of view”.
But she only ever ejected one MP during her time in the role – then DUP leader Ian Paisley who had accused a minister of lying and was subsequently suspended for 10 days.
She also controversially banned women from breastfeeding during select committee hearings.
Baroness Boothroyd presided over fiery debates on the European Union but described Nelson Mandela’s state visit and parliament address in 1996 as “the most memorable moment of my time as Speaker”.
Mr Mandela had taken her hand before they entered Westminster Hall together for a ceremony.
Baroness Boothroyd’s term of office coincided with Conservative prime minister Sir John Major’s attempts to defend his slim majority and Labour’s landslide election win in 1997.
Her 1997 re-election was unopposed.
Baroness Boothroyd stood down from her position as Speaker in 2000 after eight years in the chair presiding over MPs with a firm manner and sense of humour.
During this time, she spoke twice in the Indian Lok Sabha, once in the Russian Duma and in most European parliaments.
She also welcomed numerous political figures to Parliament, including former French president Jacques Chirac.
Ahead of delivering her farewell speech in the Commons, parliamentary staff lined up in a row to clap her out.
Her personal motto as Speaker was “I speak to serve” and she was insistent that it is the task of parliament to control the government of the day.
Baroness Boothroyd had been critical of moves towards a more presidential style, warning in her farewell speech on 26 July that prime ministers “can easily be toppled” and that parliament “is the chief forum of the nation – today, tomorrow and, I hope, for ever”.
In 2001, she was created a life peer, taking as her title Baroness Boothroyd of Sandwell in the West Midlands.
She published her autobiography in the same year.
In 2005, she was given an Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II – given to those “who have provided especially eminent service in the armed forces or particularly distinguished themselves in science, art, literature, or the promotion of culture”.
Baroness Boothroyd was not afraid to speak her mind on political matters after her retirement.
In 2018, she dramatically increased pressure on then Speaker John Bercow to honour a pledge to quit later that year.
She said he should step down in mid-parliament as a “courtesy” to MPs and not wait until the next general election.
In April 2019, Baroness Boothroyd spoke during a rally held by The People’s Vote, calling for another Brexit referendum
While in an interview in 2021, she said PMQs had “deteriorated a great deal in the last few years”, adding: “It’s not the quality that it used to be.”
Speaking as the partygate scandal unfolded, she added: “The prime minister is there to answer questions about what the government is doing, why it is not doing it.
“I don’t say prime ministers have got the answer to every question. Of course, they haven’t. But at least they’ve got to have a stab at it and make an attempt and it is not [happening] these days.”
On her retirement as Speaker, then Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy stated: “As the first woman Speaker, her place in the history books is assured.”
On Baroness Boothroyd’s 90th birthday, Tony Blair said he had been “somewhat in awe” of the former Speaker after she had told him off when, as a young MP, he had entered Parliament’s terrace wearing a sweatshirt and jeans.
While Sir John Major said the Dewsbury-born politician had entered “the Pantheon of National Treasures”.
Baroness Boothroyd died unmarried and with no children, having prioritised her work.
To this day, she remains the only female Speaker of the House of Commons in over 700 years.