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Glamour of a diva, lip of a barmaid

Tom Stoddart/Getty

Betty Boothroyd, who became the first female Speaker of the House of Commons in 1992, was once described as having “the glamour of a diva, the bearing of a kindergarten head and the lip of a barmaid”, says The Daily Telegraph. The former Labour MP developed an extensive array of “not-so-subtle ruses” to deal with time-wasters in the chamber: a simulated yawn to shorten long-winded speeches; “noisily flapping her order paper when MPs raised bogus points of order”. But her discipline was “judiciously blended with jocularity”. When she banned pagers from the House, she declared: “I have no objection to instruments which merely vibrate.”

It’s no wonder she became so popular, even among those with “little interest in politics”, says The Times. On holiday in Florida, shortly after announcing she wouldn’t wear the Speaker’s traditional headgear, she was swamped by autograph-hunters shouting: “You’re the Englishwoman who won’t wear the wig.” Tony Blair described her as “something of a national institution” – a fitting description for someone once voted by newspaper readers as their preferred alternative to the Queen as head of state. Boothroyd eventually retired in 2000 after 27 years in parliament, but she never lost her “sense of theatre”. On the eve of a crucial Brexit vote in 2019, the 89-year-old told the House of Lords that, as Harold Wilson had put it, anyone who thought European Community membership was a black-and-white issue was “either a charlatan or a simpleton”. She paused, then added: “This brings me to Boris Johnson.”