Eleanor Laing: “I will try to become Speaker when John Bercow finally decides to go"
As she makes her pitch to be the next Speaker, Dame Eleanor Laing opens up to Sebastian Whale on her experience as a working mother, how a new generation is driving reform – and why we need less testosterone in Westminster
Dame Eleanor Laing’s teachers laughed at her when she told them she wanted to be a politician. They said it would be wiser for a girl to consider becoming a lawyer or a doctor, as they were careers one could return to after having a family. “I remember thinking, that’s a kind of funny way to look at life,” she tells me.
In 1980, she became the first woman to be elected President of the Edinburgh Student Union. Once more, she had been warned by others not to bother trying. “The more people said to me there’s never been a woman who has been elected as union president, then the more I was determined to be elected,” she recalls.
Doubters have rarely troubled Laing; they only serve to spur her on. Her quiet determination is not curtailed by the concerns of others. And after more than five years as deputy speaker, she cannot contain her ambitions any longer.
Laing and others have waited patiently as speculation about John Bercow’s future continues to mount. The Speaker had pledged to stand down in 2018 after nine years in the chair, but delayed his departure following the 2017 election. Though friends have signalled he could go later this year, no confirmation has been forthcoming from the Speaker himself.
Sitting with Laing in her parliamentary office, I ask if she will be putting herself forward when he does depart. “I don’t know when the Speaker will decide to go, but it’s very much his decision. And when he finally does decide that he’s going to go, I expect that there will be a great many candidates to replace him and I would expect the deputy speakers to be amongst those candidates,” the Conservative MP hints.
So, yes, she will be putting herself forward? After collecting her thoughts, Laing confirms her candidacy. “I will try to become Speaker when he finally decides to go. I am fortunate to have had five years’ experience in the Speaker’s chair. There is a lot to be done to take our democratic system onto the next stage.”
Laing has started the firing gun on the race to become the next Speaker; the high-profile custodian of the Commons whose work carries great diplomatic and historical significance. Popular and experienced but less well-known than some of those rumoured to be considering running, what made Laing the politician she is today? And what reforms does she want to see to the institution she was first elected to join nearly 22 years ago?
Eleanor Fulton Laing was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire on 1 February 1958. She grew up in the nearby village of Elderslie with her parents, in the west of Scotland. Her father, who ran a building contractors’ firm, was also a local councillor. Though spiritually a Conservative, he served as an independent.
Laing joined the Tories when she went to Edinburgh University at 18, before resigning after concluding that the Federation of Conservative Students was “terribly right wing”. The “pragmatic” Laing, who re-joined the party after graduating, stood as an independent in the race to become president of the union.
Things were going swimmingly until Laing discovered that, having been elected, she was required to stand on a table and drink a yard of ale. Believing that sometimes “women do things differently from men”, she opted for half a yard of gin and tonic. “The less said about that, the better.”
Would Laing consider her younger self to have been a feminist? “It depends how you define feminist,” she replies. She once more had no time for those on the fringes – this time in the shape of “radical feminists” – who concentrated on the “extremes of politics”.
“I have always thought that that mass of people in the middle, and in this case, the mass of women in the middle who just wanted to be treated with respect and given equality of opportunity and equal pay… These things were most important. So, yes, I was and always have been a feminist,” she continues.
Her successful bid for the role made a lasting impact. “Making a bit of a breakthrough fairly early in life and being able, to a certain extent, to prove that just because things have always been done in a certain way didn’t mean they always had to be done in a certain way is, I suppose, one of my driving factors,” she says.
“I also discovered at an early age something which I consider to be extremely important now, which is that you can disagree on the particulars of economic policy and political theory with someone, but you can still be friends. Politics is not war.”
Though Laing savours the adversarial nature of the House of Commons, she often feels that debates go overboard during Prime Minister’s Questions. “Being adversarial is not the same thing as being belligerent. In order to have an argument, you don’t have to have aggression,” she says. “Yes, we should certainly have argument, certainly have adversarial jousting, but we could do with a bit less aggression.”
As for a solution, she adds: “There’s a certain amount of testosterone which drives this. It is a scientific fact that if you have less testosterone present, then you will have less aggression. So, if you have more women, you have less testosterone and less aggression.”
Laing worked as a lawyer in Edinburgh before moving down to London. In the late 1980s, she became a special adviser to John MacGregor, a Cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Why did she pass up a promising career to pursue politics? “Because my heart was in the House of Commons, not in the law courts.”
Laing felt a “significant duty”, which endures to this day, to make the most of the advantages her generation of women enjoyed. That is a lot of pressure to put on yourself, I say. “Yes, it is. There are times when I’ve thought, ‘Why would I bother going on with this?’ I watch my friends having relaxed and happy lives and I think, ‘Why don’t I just go and do that?’ I can’t do it because I feel that I am so fortunate that I was given a chance and that it’s my duty to make the best of that chance in order to try to give that chance to many more women of future generations,” she replies.
She adds: “We’re at a crucial time where we simply must not give in and must not let things slide backwards… It’s by empowering women that we allow the voice of 52 per cent of the population to be heard. Of course, that is even more important in other parts of the world where women are really treated as second class citizens. One of the things that we have to do as women in the western world is stand up for women throughout the world who need us to be their voice in order to try to empower them.”
Laing was elected Conservative MP for Epping Forest in 1997, a constituency represented in a former incarnation by Sir Winston Churchill, whose portrait is one of many on the walls of her Westminster office. Her father, who served in the Second World War, idolised the former prime minister. He didn’t think he was a villain then, I ask. Laing smiles. “Certainly not.”
Laing was among the Tory rebels in 1998 to back lowering the age of consent to 16 for homosexual men. MPs from her party “hissed and booed and muttered” at her as she outlined her case in the Chamber. Sir Nicholas Winterton, the former Conservative MP for Macclesfield, decried “she’s not even a Christian”, Laing claims.
Their reaction is symptomatic of the changing nature of the Commons, Laing argues. “Now, the entire Conservative party would laugh at you if you suggested there should be any discrimination against a gay man. So, it’s a generational thing,” she explains.
It took just over a year for Laing to be appointed to the whips’ office, the first of several frontbench positions she held during the Tories’ time in opposition, including a period as shadow secretary of state for Scotland.
A week after the 2001 general election, Laing gave birth to her first and only child. The vote had been postponed by a month due to foot and mouth, and her son was born five weeks early. “Timing has never really been my strong point,” she quips. Proxy voting, recently introduced to the Commons, was a far-off concept.
Central to Laing’s pitch for the job of Speaker is tackling the “self-perpetuating mirror effect” of politics, which she argues will come about through greater diversity and generational change. “We ought to have a parliament that reflects the society it purports to represent. Therefore, there ought to be a significant number of women of childbearing age and mothers in this place. Twenty years ago, that wasn’t generally accepted, you know. It really was not. But that’s another breakthrough that we have made, those of us who have had babies while we’re MPs or have become MPs while we have small children, of whom there are now a large number,” she says.
“We have to have a system that allows a woman to continue to use her brain and her voice at the same as she is giving birth to or looking after a small child. I’m not in favour of proxy voting in general. But I’m very much in favour of it for this one narrow situation… Pregnancy and childbirth is not an ailment, it’s not an illness, it’s part of everyday life. We must treat it as a part of everyday life, including everyday life of the House of Commons.”
Proxy voting is “only a small part of the change that is necessary”, Laing argues. “We have to have an outlook that says you can do things rather than an outlook that says you can’t do things. Too often in here it’s been all about the traditional way of dealing with things,” she argues. “There is good reason for the rules that we have based on experience and how to preserve and enhance the democratic process. But tradition is an evolutionary method of creating rules as well.”
On 16 October 2013, after three years on the backbenches, Laing was elected as First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means – becoming one of three deputy speakers – after Nigel Evans stood down. Portraits of her predecessors fill the walls of her parliamentary workspace, with the other two women to have served in the position – Betty Anderson and Sylvia Heal – standing out among a series of men.
In recent times, Laing has chaired debates during Friday business where Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope has made a name for himself. The backbench MP has objected to several Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) on the basis they have not received sufficient debate at second reading. But his interventions have often corresponded with high-profile legislation that has caught the public eye. The most recent example was the PMB seeking to provide more protection for children from FGM, sponsored by Zac Goldsmith in the Commons.
Laing, who was in the Chair for the debate, recognises Chope’s right to object to the passage of a bill based on the reasons outlined. She notes that a system that works for government bills “doesn’t quite work” with regards to PMBs, and points to the work of the Procedure committee, who are reviewing Friday business.
“Let me make it absolutely clear here that I am not defending what Chris Chope did. Christopher Chope exercised his judgment. In this particular instance, it’s unfortunate that he didn’t exercise his judgment in the other way and recognised that this was a bill that could bring a lot of benefits. But he has every right to exercise this judgment,” she says.
There are plenty of PMBs where Chope did not intervene, I point out. “That’s also correct, yes.”
The whole debate refers to Laing’s central thesis about the changing demographics of the Commons. “I consider that generational change is what will bring about the most beneficial developments in our procedure and in parliament,” she begins. For an environment to improve and changes to be made on equal rights, you need to have “everyone involved”, she argues. “The next generation of men are men who’ve been brought up by professional women, whose sisters and wives are professional women and now their daughters are professional women. Therefore, they see things differently. That’s how I see change coming about. It’s a generational thing.”
She adds: “I will not vilify Chris Chope who is a dedicated parliamentarian. He thinks the most important thing is to protect the rule that says you must have a second reading before a bill becomes law. I think the most important thing is to reflect the society which we try to represent. And so, it’s a matter of weighing your values and principles in the balance.”
That balance is a constant consideration for Laing as deputy Speaker, ensuring a fair distribution of voices is heard during a debate. That impartiality is crucial to success in the role, and one which has come into doubt for some about the current occupant of the Chair, who has faced criticism from Tory backbenchers over his rulings during the Brexit debate.
How is Laing’s relationship with Speaker Bercow? “We first fought seats together 32 years ago. So, I’ve known him and sparred with him for a long, long time.”
Speaker Bercow has also come under pressure over the experience of staff in the Commons. Dame Laura Cox’s report into bullying and harassment in Westminster found a “culture… of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence” in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment “have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed”.
Laing says it is incumbent upon senior people in every organisation to behave with “decorum and respect” towards their staff. “Nothing makes me more angry than to see somebody speak to a driver or a waitress or a doorman in a way that suggests there’s any inferiority. There is no inferiority. All people doing their job well are equal and deserve respect whatever the job they’re doing,” she continues.
“This is one organisation where there are some people who think that when they get to a certain stage that they have license to behave in an inappropriate way to other people.
“In order to change that culture and to drive a culture of greater respect, it seems that we can’t just rely on evolution, but that we have to have a set of rules. But again, if you shout at someone, you can expect them to shout back. If you hit someone, you can expect them to hit back. So, the senior person, the person in charge, has to never shout and never hit. That way, you will get a cascade of decent behaviour.”
Given that the Cox report concluded that the culture could not change with the existing senior management, isn’t it damaging that Speaker Bercow – who faces accusations of bullying two former private secretaries, which he denies – remains in position?
“The Speaker was properly elected to be Speaker. He hasn’t finished his term of office. He has achieved an enormous amount as Speaker and some people like the way he does things and some people don’t. That’s in the nature of a political organisation. So, I make no comment about that,” Laing responds.
Laing was “totally taken aback” when she received a letter asking if she would accept the honour of a damehood late last year. “I was amazed because I didn’t think I was old enough to be a dame,” she jokes.
Members of her family, including her 17-year-old son, accompanied her in February to Buckingham Palace to receive the honour from Prince William. “That was really something,” she smiles.
One of the quirks of being a deputy speaker means, unlike the Chair, you retain your party affiliation but are not able to vote or speak out about the matters of the day. Has that been a challenge for Laing?
“Yes, it has been difficult, especially at controversial times, not to give my own opinion. But I have been able to do it because I take my duties as deputy speaker – and the impartiality that that entails – very seriously and, quite frankly, I care more about democracy and making the House of Commons work properly than I do about hearing the sound of my own voice,” she replies.
Though Laing is curtailed on speaking out about political matters, she has been forthright in outlining her future ambitions. To have declared her candidacy for the Speakership before the incumbent has announced plans to step down is somewhat unusual. But, as obstacles have rarely troubled her before, why would they now?