Sunak and Starmer pay tribute to Betty Boothroyd at funeral of first woman speaker
Prime minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer were among the mourners paying their last respects at the funeral of Baroness Betty Boothroyd, the first ever woman speaker of the House of Commons.
Baroness Boothroyd, a former Labour MP, died in February at the age of 93. Her funeral took place at a church near her home in Cambridgeshire.
Mr Sunak described her as remarkable as he led the tributes, saying: “Parliament stands taller because of her service.”
Before the private service, Mr Sunak and Mr Starmer each greeted mourners at the 12th-century St George’s Church in the village of Thriplow.
Afterwards they gathered outside as the hearse, with a white floral tribute on top, left while the church bells tolled.
The service, which concluded with the congregation singing The Battle Hymn Of The Republic, coincided with Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, where Dominic Raab and Angela Rayner stood in for their party leaders.
Baroness Boothroyd entered parliament as the MP for West Bromwich West in 1974 and shattered 700 years of parliamentary tradition by being elected speaker in April 1992, staying on until October 2000.
She then entered the Lords as a crossbench peer in January 2001, serving in the upper chamber until her death last month.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, her current successor, said Baroness Boothroyd was one of the “greatest women” he had ever known and he would always be “in awe” of her.
After the funeral he said: “She supported me to become speaker and she always gave me advice, whether I wanted it or not, Betty would ring up and just put me right.”
He said: “She smashed that glass ceiling to smithereens. She became the first and only woman speaker we’ve ever had.
“What a fantastic speaker. She is one of the greatest speakers ever known. One of the greatest women that I can honestly say that I have known.
“I will always be in awe and always thank her for her kindness and her advice.”
The former Labour prime minister Sir Tony Blair said at the time: “She was a truly outstanding speaker, presiding with great authority, warmth and wit, for which she had our deep respect and admiration.”
Born to mill worker parents in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in 1929, Lady Boothroyd was a professional dancer from 1946 to 1948, appearing in pantomime in London’s West End before going into politics.
She unsuccessfully contested four parliamentary seats before being elected to West Bromwich (later to become West Bromwich West) in May 1973.
Baroness Boothroyd also served as assistant government whip before becoming a member of the European Parliament in 1975.
In 1987, the Labour MP was appointed deputy speaker of the Commons, a position she would hold until 1992 when Bernard “Jack” Weatherill announced he was stepping down as speaker. She won a vote by 372 votes to 238 against Conservative MP John Brooke.
“Elect me for what I am, and not for what I was born,” she said in her acceptance speech.
Lady Boothroyd refused to wear the traditional speaker’s wig, modernising the role. However, the former speaker banned women from breast-feeding during select committee hearings.
She stood down from her position as speaker in 2000 after eight years.
In 2001, the former Labour MP was made a life peer, taking as her title Baroness Boothroyd of Sandwell in the West Midlands, and published her autobiography. Some four years later in 2005 she was given an Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II.
Sir Lindsay said the funeral “was Baroness Boothroyd to the end”.
“Didn’t she climb some hills, from Yorkshire to the hills of Westminster, she took every challenge in her stride and didn’t she know how to do it,” he said.
“And I’ve got to say, the service was so fitting. It was Baroness Boothroyd to the end.”