Lord Bernard Weatherill

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LORD BERNARD WEATHERILL MP and former speaker of the House of Commons

Born: 25 November, 1920, in Guildford, Surrey. Died: 6 May, 2007, aged 86.

LORD Weatherill was the first House of Commons speaker in the age of parliamentary television. He could claim higher TV ratings in the United States than even the most popular and addictive soaps.

In fact, the mild-mannered but no-nonsense figure in the full-bottomed wig and flowing, traditional robes enjoyed - if that is the right word - more TV exposure in Britain than even prime ministers and other celebrated parliamentarians.

But the mildness, generosity and geniality of his nature belied a tough and fair speaker, who made no secret of the fact that he was the banner-carrier for back-benchers in the House of Commons. He was, in the words of one commentator, "a speaker for the poor, bloody infantry".

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher sometimes found it hard to disguise her irritation that he appeared, on occasions, to allow too much time for airing sensitive policy issues when the government would have preferred far less exposure.

He also had an uncanny gift of handling potential trouble-makers, allowing them, in Mrs Thatcher's phrase used in another context, "the oxygen of publicity", and thus blunting their capacity as nuisances.

And to those who complained that he called the left-wing firebrand Dennis Skinner too often, he replied: "He does not get called unfairly often. It is just that he is there a lot. I often say to MPs, 'You've got to come into the chamber. The more tickets you take in a tombola, the greater your chance of a prize'."

Lord Weatherill was also a lifelong vegetarian, insisting: "I am not a crank. I just don't eat meat. I never have."

He was a high-class tailor by profession and carried with him at all times a thimble to remind him of his humble background.

Bruce Bernard Weatherill was born in 1920 in Guildford, and attended Malvern College. He was never made a prefect, but because of his size he was made "senior inferior", which, he once said, "meant I could do whatever I wanted".

He came into politics via the family tailoring business and soldiering in India, where he wound up as a Bengal Lancer.

Lord Weatherill once said: "India was the most formative time in my life. It taught me the importance of self-discipline."

He represented Croydon North East from 1964 until his retirement from the Commons in 1992, when he was made a peer.

His political career took off under Conservative leader Edward Heath, who put him in the whip's office in opposition in 1967. By 1973 he was deputy chief government whip. But when, in 1979, Mrs Thatcher swept to power, she ignored his claims to be chief whip.

Instead, he became deputy speaker and it was in that post, in January 1980, that he gave his casting vote to allow TV cameras into the Commons.

He was elected speaker in 1983, despite what many considered constitutionally improper resistance from Mrs Thatcher.

Once, when he granted an emergency debate on an issue, former Tory minister Norman Tebbit felt it necessary to protest to the speaker in his apartments. This was followed by a whispering campaign that Lord Weatherill was not up to the job of dealing with "bully boys".

But the criticism was manifestly unfair. He was not a disciplinarian, he hated expelling people and usually asked once or twice too often before ordering a removal from the chamber.

His period as speaker was marked by his desire to subordinate the front-benches of government and opposition to the requirements and desires of back-benchers.

There were even reports, unconfirmed, of a confrontation in July 1985, in which Mrs Thatcher demanded more protection from him. He is said to have replied that he had no intention of cocooning her.

He once insisted a minister unveiled the government's new inner-city policies in the Commons before a press conference outside, saying: "I hope we will always have a robust parliament and not be mealy-mouthed about it."

The rowdiest scenes he oversaw were in February 1990, when Mrs Thatcher had to withdraw an accusation that Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour opposition, took his orders from the African National Congress, then an outlawed organisation.

In that row, Labour front-bencher Gerald Kaufman said Mrs Thatcher should be imprisoned for the same 27 years as ANC leader Nelson Mandela.

And in the same year he was compelled to suspend the sitting to allow Labour's fury to abate over the reluctance of the health secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to make a statement on NHS trusts.

Lord Weatherill was an Urdu speaker and a non-smoker who meditated every morning. He once surprised the House by ruling the word "poppycock" unparliamentary and ordering its withdrawal. MPs consulted their dictionaries and found that the word has, in its original Dutch, unpleasant connotations in relation to bodily functions.

His motto was: "I dispense love and whisky after 10pm liberally, and if you are going to blurt everything out in your memoirs for money, it doesn't do the trade much good. I mean, we all know what goes on in bedrooms, but we don't tell the kids, do we?"

After his elevation to the upper chamber, Lord Weatherill became a kind of cheerleader for the cross-benchers. Former Commons speakers who go to the Lords rarely resume their former party affiliations. He was renowned as one of the best raconteurs at Westminster. He was also the first speaker to become ex-officio president of the press gallery.

Lord Weatherill was the most recent champion of the full-bottom wig: His two successors, Betty Boothroyd and Michael Martin, declined to wear it.

In 2005, he disclosed that he was suffering from prostate cancer.

He is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.