Labour MPs last night defied pressure from senior ministers when they voted to elect Michael Martin, a former shop steward from Labour's industrial heartlands, to become 152nd Speaker of the House of Commons - instead of the Old Etonian Tory ex-cabinet minister, Sir George Young.
After the father of the Commons, 84-year-old Sir Edward Heath, had rejected pleas for a straightforward ballot to choose from the 12 contenders, it took more than six hours of cumbersome voting to complete the election as even no-hopers took their turn - to the dismay of Westminster modernisers.
By the time it was over the once crowded chamber was almost deserted. Mr Martin was never fewer than 76 votes ahead of his 11 rivals and in no serious danger of defeat.
With the help of the ministerial "payroll vote" Sir George got closest, losing by 317 to 241. Labour's strongest challenger, the sacked cabinet minister David Clark, managed only 192 votes to the winner's 257. Menzies Campbell in the Lib Dem corner lost 403-89.
With Tony Blair not voting in person, but privately keen not to be seen to insist on a Labour Speaker, at least 25 ministers, including David Blunkett, Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson, backed Sir George. But the move backfired as angry backbenchers protested at the tactic when the parliamentary Labour party met on the Commons' first day back since July 27. What they saw as inadvertent control freakery may cost another of yesterday's Young-backers, Clive Soley, his job as PLP chairman next month.
In picking the 55-year-old MP for Glasgow Springburn as successor to Betty Boothroyd, Labour backbenchers sent a complex series of messages to the government and the wider, watching electorate months before the general election.
He is the first Speaker to be an authentic representative of the industrial working class, the child of an impoverished broken home who met his wife in a factory. "My origin should be no reason for me being elected, nor should my origin be a reason to debar me," Mr Martin told MPs yesterday.
Mr Martin will be the first Roman Catholic Speaker since Henry VIII's Protestant Reformation, a symbol of old barriers falling as British political culture evolves. As an anti-devolution Scot he may also prove a symbol of the enduring union between England and Scotland.
After the traditional dragging of the new Speaker to the chair - a relic of times when it was a high-risk office - Mr Martin last night promised to uphold the rights and duties of the Commons, not least in resisting a government whose huge majority allows it to bypass the House. "Michael will be tough," one close ally predicted.
Yesterday's contest was conducted in fierce but fair-minded terms after Sir Edward had resisted calls from senior MPs on both sides, led by Tony Benn, to use his brief afternoon of power to tear up rules not devised for a multi-candidate contest. He expressed "considerable sympathy" and offered his own version of a compromise.
That was to set out the order in which he intended to call the 12 contenders, who would be voted on two at a time. Unexpectedly he started with the bookies' favourite, Mr Martin. Equally unexpectedly he let the contest run to the bitter end.
By general consent Gwyneth Dunwoody made the most impassioned speech and Sir George the most elegant. But Mr Martin did what ex-shop stewards do: won the vote by planning and hard graft.
Each rival's name was added as an amendment to the motion:
Sir Alan Haselhurst (Con) lost by 140 to 345
Alan Beith (Lib Dem) 83 to 409
Gwyneth Dunwoody (Lab) 170 to 341
Sir George Young (Con) 241 to 317
Menzies Campbell (Lib Dem) 98 to 381
David Clark (Lab) 192 to 257
Nicholas Winterton (Con) 116 to 340
John McWilliam (Lab) 30 to 309
Michael Lord (Con) 146 to 290
Sir Patrick Cormack (Con) 130 to 287
Richard Shepherd (Con) 136 to 282