Speaker under growing threat

In a mysterious way, the authority of a Speaker reflects the effectiveness of a Parliament. That is why MPs face a dilemma over mounting pressure to remove Speaker Martin over his terrible handling of the expenses saga. The office of the Speaker at Westminster is the gold standard, thanks to getting in first. At Stormont, Willie Hay, a junior edition of the Westminster model, has shown he understands the potency of the office. In the interest of the authority of the Assembly as a whole, he was right to assert the authority of the Chair over the sort of peasant’s revolt the DUP would never dare attempt at Westminster these days. At Westminster, an MP getting himself suspended in defiance of the Chair is a significant political gesture of the kind made by Ian Paisley and others in 1981 after the murder of Rev Robert Bradford. This was at a very dark time, when the DUP were also making very different extra-parliamentary gestures, their walk in the hills with men in balaclavas. Otherwise, MPs stay respectful of the office rather than the mere office holder – and observation is usually stricter at Westminster than in the Dail, where the Ceann Comhairle regularly has to struggle to be heard.

Up to this week, and for three hundred and fifty six years since Cromwell expelled the Rump Parliament in 1653, the prestige of the office of Speaker carried the holder through many crises and personal foibles like being drunk on the job and extreme pomposity (neither I hasten to add applying to Speaker Martin). That’s why the news that the skids are under him makes history.

But is it true? The Guardian story claiming he’ll quit before the election may be an attempt to head off an effort to unseat him next week . Reported Lib Dem support for a coup seems serious. The Conservatives are washing their hands of him. They never liked him right from the moment he succeeded fellow Labour stalwart Betty Boothroyd in 2000, in a break with the custom of alternating the Speakership between the two main parties. Rumbles for him to quit broke out a year ago, when he tamely allowed in the police to arrest Damian Green. While Speakers are seldom politicians of the very first rank, Martin has been more mediocre than most, arch-conservative at a time when calls for reform were already mounting and a strong defender of outdated Commons restrictive practices like its notorious bent for secrecy, in the manner of the old-style shop steward he once was.

And yet, MPs will draw back from unseating him, I predict. Defenestration of the Speaker would deliver too big a shock to the system. Moreover, many Labour MPs quietly applaud his cack-handed defence of privileges and the party couldn’t bear a by-election. Michael Martin will stay on, in the pretence that he’ll chose his own moment to quit next Spring, a couple of months before the general election.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London