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Lords Diary: Lord Cormack

29 March 2023: Order of Service for the funeral of Betty Boothroyd, St George's Church, Cambridgeshire | Alamy

4 min read

The last Prime Minister’s Questions before Easter was a remarkable one

Mr Speaker was not in the Chair, and neither the Prime Minister, nor the leader of the opposition, was there either. Instead they were sitting side by side (the Speaker with the Prime Minister on his right and the leader of the opposition on his left) in a 13th century village church in rural Cambridgeshire. As the clock struck 12, the coffin of the late Betty Boothroyd was placed in the crossing.

This was essentially a family, and a village, occasion but it was entirely right that both Houses of Parliament should be represented by their Speakers, the two main party leaders and a group of parliamentarians and officials who had known and admired one of the most memorable parliamentarians of the last century, the first, and very great, woman Speaker.

Her three surviving deputy speakers were there (Baroness Fookes, Lord Naseby and Lord Haselhurst); the first ever woman Black Rod; the Clerk of the House of Commons and one of his most illustrious predecessors, Lord Lisvane, together with Lord Snape, her former constituency neighbour.

It was a memorable occasion, beginning with a recording of Betty’s great friend, Patricia Routledge, singing Climb Every Mountain. There were rousing hymns, all chosen by Betty, beginning with I Vow to Thee My Country and ending with the Battle Hymn of the Republic, testimony to her great love of the United States, where she had spent part of her political apprenticeship working for JFK. It was a daunting honour to have been asked to give the tribute but to me the most moving, and symbolic, feature of a unique day was seeing the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition talking animatedly together – the very embodiment of what parliamentary democracy, to which Betty devoted her life, is about: mutual respect and the ability to disagree without personal animosity.

It was a daunting honour to have been asked to give the tribute to Betty Boothroyd

We arrived back to find the House had just begun to debate the Windsor Framework but, delighted as I was by the emphatic vote, the Chamber was, for once, not the focus of my attention. My elder son, Charles, and his wife, were in the Lords for a reception to celebrate the scheme which has twinned British and Ukrainian universities, launched by Charles’s consultancy during those terrible days following the Russian invasion in February last year. As tributes were paid to his efforts I felt a surge of paternal pride.

After a full and very special week it was good to be able to head back to Lincoln at the most solemn time in the Christian year. There can be no better, challenging, or uplifting, place for a Christian to spend Holy Week than in a cathedral city – especially if the cathedral has a fine choir. I write this on Maundy Thursday after several services where the music has been sublime. And tonight and tomorrow there will, I know, be spine tingling moments, not least when the choir sings Allegri’s Miserere on Good Friday morning. And then the Easter Vigil and the joy of Easter follow.

We have an interim dean, Simon Jones from Merton College, Oxford. Sadly he is with us only until Christmas but by then the process of appointing a permanent dean should be complete and long before then I hope we should know who our new bishop will be. For the last 18 months the Bishop of Ely has been a splendid acting Bishop of Lincoln but clearly a diocese of this size needs its own bishop.

I am looking forward to showing a group of parliamentarians from the Arts and Heritage Group Lincoln’s treasures on April 25: the castle, which houses our 1215 Magna Carta; the cathedral, where the magnificently restored West Front is now without scaffolding; the Council Chamber, in use since the 14th century; and the new International Bomber Command Centre.

Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer and life president of The House magazine

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