FOR the first time since the office was created more than six centuries ago, Britain's House of Commons has elected a woman as its Speaker.
Betty Boothroyd, a Labour member in a Parliament where Conservatives have a 21-seat majority, took over the task of moderating a rowdy, male-dominated lower chamber April 28. A day earlier Ms. Boothroyd defeated Peter Brooke, the former secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
Her victory was all the more remarkable in that the speakership usually falls to a member of the majority party. There had not been a contest for the speakership since 1972. And the post is usually filled after backstairs bargaining in the ruling party.
On this occasion, however, the Conservatives failed to produce a consensus candidate and more than 70 of their Members of Parliament (MPs) went into the voting lobby to support Boothroyd. When the result was announced, she was ceremonially dragged to the Speaker's chair by two other members. This was followed by her promise to do her best to be a fair and neutral moderator of Commons business.
Her feigned reluctance to take the chair was perhaps symbolic of the fact that while the position today is a difficult one, it is even harsher historically. Some of her predecessors were executed for defending Parliament from the monarchy. These days, however, the worst that can happen to the chairman is losing control of parliamentary business as 650 MPs vie for speaking time.
The Commons is always likely to erupt in argument, and the current Parliament, with Conservatives enjoying only a 21-seat majority, promises to be particularly turbulent.
A group of Scottish MPs, keen to assert Scotland's separateness from the rest of the United Kingdom, have indicated they will be demanding plenty of time to make their nationalist case.
Another problem Boothroyd must soon face is demands from younger MPs, many of them with families, to have the sitting hours of the Commons reduced, with fewer late-night sessions. This will add to the pressures on her from MPs demanding speaking opportunities.
Boothroyd has had five years' experience as a deputy Speaker. But she has had only limited practice controlling what many regard as the most volatile part of Commons business: the twice-weekly sessions of questions to the prime minister.
These involve direct confrontations between the prime minister and opposition ministers and MPs, and always pose the threat of becoming shouting matches, with bellowed points of order from members.
One MP who voted for Boothroyd said: "On such occasions the Commons is like a bear pit, and Betty will need all her wit and patience to come out smiling. We are unlikely to give her a grace period."
In her time as deputy speaker she demonstrated a mixture of toughness and good humor. On her first day in the chair a member asked her how she wished to be addressed. She replied: "Call me Madam."
In a speech before her election on Monday she insisted that the fact that she was a woman was not a relevant question, commenting: "Elect me for who I am, and not for what I was born."
On becoming Speaker, Boothroyd automatically abandoned her Labour Party allegiance. Colleagues said she would quickly find that her job can be lonely - especially for a politician who in 19 years in the Commons has acquired a gregarious reputation. The Speaker has a comfortable apartment inside the Palace of Westminster and is expected to lead a withdrawn life, with only limited social contact.
Unlike her predecessor, Bernard Weatherill, Boothroyd, who has a shock of curly grey hair, will have no need of a ceremonial wig. "I want to be comfortable in what I wear as a working outfit and I don't think I would be comfortable in a wig," she told journalists after her election.