Sir Edward Leigh: “I want to have a go at the speakership. Why not? Somebody’s got to win”
Sir Edward Leigh will start as an outsider in the race to succeed John Bercow as Speaker. The unapologetic Thatcherite has enjoyed a varied 36-year career in the Commons. Standing on a platform to take the Speakership back to its traditional roots, does he have a shot at entering the Chair? He talks to Sebastian Whale
In the early hours of 22 November 1990, Sir Edward Leigh had a dawning realisation. The Cabinet was preparing to “knife” Margaret Thatcher. He headed to Downing Street with fellow Tory MP Michael Brown to plead with the then prime minister not to resign. She did so later that day.
Leigh decided to pay another beleaguered prime minister a similar visit three weeks ago. He “begged” Theresa May to stay on, believing a change of leader will “achieve nothing”. He hopes his intervention will not prove to be the kiss of death. “My record for keeping lady prime ministers in power is not very good,” Leigh admits.
A veteran on the Tory backbenches, Leigh first entered parliament in 1983 as MP for Gainsborough. As I arrive in his parliamentary office overlooking a packed Westminster Bridge, the 68-year-old informs me that this is his first interview with The House magazine during his 36-year career.
That is undoubtedly something of an omission on our part, for Leigh’s is an interesting story, and not just now that he is running for the Speakership. Both his parents were brought up in France but had to flee during the Second World War (Leigh chairs APPGs on France and Italy and speaks fluently in both). Born on 20 July 1950, he was educated at The Oratory school and the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle (the French school in London), before graduating with a History degree from Durham University.
His first job came with Horace Cutler in 1973, then leader of the opposition on the Greater London Council. He qualified as a barrister soon after. He stood for election in 1974 in Middlesbrough, where he lost by a “mere” 14,000 votes to Labour’s Arthur Bottomley, despite the campaigning efforts of his then-roommate, Michael Fallon, whom he met in the Federation of Conservative Students.
Leigh would go on to work for Thatcher as her principal correspondent secretary when she was leader of the opposition. He is an unapologetic Thatcherite (portraits of the Iron Lady adorn his shelves) and a founder member of the No Turning Back group of pro-Thatcher Tory MPs. “I was one of her boys in a way,” he says. What would Lady T have made of politics today? “Well, she was a great compromiser… She would have tried probably to get a deal through, rather like Mrs May is doing,” he replies.
Leigh, who joined the Department of Trade and Industry in 1990, was her last ministerial appointment. He was later sacked by John Major (a man for whose leadership he has few warm words) following the Maastricht debates, despite voting for the bill. He chaired the Public Accounts Committee from 2001-2010.
By his own accord, he wasn’t really suited to the constraints of ministerial life. “The trouble is, I cannot keep my mouth shut in the Chamber about voicing my own opinions. I am very independent. I don’t attack my own government for the sake of it, but I do if I think they’re doing something wrong,” he says, noting he has rebelled “dozens of times”.
Leigh, a prominent Roman Catholic, is someone you might think would not be in tune with the modern-day Conservative party. “You can pigeonhole me as a Catholic, as a Thatcherite – I am a Catholic, I am a Thatcherite – but there are so many different variations of the modern Conservative party. Are we a socially liberal party, are we a socially conservative party, are we a pro-EU party, are we a eurosceptic party?” he asks.
Leigh, who says he got on “very well” with David Cameron, is transparent about his views. Defining himself as a “measured Brexiteer” who became eurosceptic over questions of sovereignty, he has voted for the Withdrawal Agreement three times. Of those jostling to replace May, he says he is minded to vote for Michael Gove, should the Environment Secretary step forward (he argues the 2016 contest was Boris Johnson’s “moment with history”).
While recognising that the Brexit party represent the “ultimate protest vote” (Leigh has previously said his party had “pissed off” half its membership), he urges Tory backers to “bite the bullet” and vote Conservative at the European elections to avoid “destabilising” the “one party” that’s trying to deliver Brexit. “But I have to say that because otherwise I might get sacked,” he jokes.
Ahead of the 1979 election, Leigh was asked at CCHQ by a Daily Telegraph journalist about his political ambition. “Oh, I’d like to be Speaker,” he replied.
Though John Bercow has yet to confirm when he will step down, the contest to replace him is up and running. It is fair to say that Leigh begins as an outsider. “I want to have a go at the speakership. Why not? Somebody’s got to win.”
Leigh, who is opposed to the current restoration and renewal plans for the Palace of Westminster, argues any decant of parliament should be impermanent. “I think it’s a great white elephant, a waste of money and I would just build a temporary structure in the courtyard when and if it becomes necessary,” he says. “If this building is in danger of burning down, why are we delaying till 2028?”
But with falling masonry and the memory of the fire at Notre-Dame still strong, Leigh was branded a “dinosaur” by the Prospect union in a piece for The House and accused of putting’ lives at risk. His argument, however, is that if that is the case, there should be an exodus of parliament immediately. “So, I’m not a dinosaur, I’m not putting people’s safety at risk. Why wait eight years?” he queries.
Leigh, who says counts Speaker Bercow as a personal friend (“I quite admire him in many ways”), says he would be a “very traditional” chair who “wouldn’t speak much”. He would bring back the wigs for formal occasions such as the state opening of parliament but doesn’t want to be characterised just for this policy. “There are much more important things,” he adds.
Vowing to award fewer urgent questions, Leigh is keen to improve the quality of debate in the Commons, which he says has been “downgraded”. “I think we want to expand the time somehow to have proper, serious debates with serious discussions where people can develop arguments.” He is opposed to electronic voting as divisions offer up backbenchers the opportunity to confront ministers. “They can’t escape you,” he says with a mischievous grin. On the culture of Westminster, he says: “I’m very old fashioned and traditional, I believe in good manners and not bullying. I don’t think it’s a modern thing. There are people who are just bullies and they have to be sat upon. But equally, I’m not in favour of creating some vast structure which will just inhibit and cause more and more difficulties. I just want to do it naturally, progressively, calmly and in a traditional way. You treat other people as they treat you.”
His overarching hope is for the next speaker to be almost invisible. “I hope they will say ‘this man or woman was completely impartial, they’ve done a good job, they’ve gone, and we can’t really remember a great deal about them, we know nothing about their political views, but they held the fort and let everybody get their say’ in basically. That’s what Speakers traditionally do,” he says.
“If you go back in history, you can’t pick up a Speaker in the 19th century or the early 20th century or any other century and say, ‘oh, this chap was trying to do this, he stopped Brexit happening’, or some equivalent.”
He concludes: “I’ve got no illusions about winning, but I obviously will try to win. It’s a serious option. But I just want to give people the option of having a candidate who expresses that sort of point of view, and also expresses the point of view about decant. A lot of MPs do not want to be removed from this building at vast public cost for ten years, while a feeding feast for architects and surveyors and builders goes on.”