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mediocre than most, arch-conservative at a time when calls for reform were already mounting and a strong defender of outdated Commons restrictive practices like its notorious bent for secrecy, in the manner of the old-style shop steward he once was.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.

  • Big Maggie

    The queen can unseat the bugger if she sees fit.

    Will she? No.

  • blinding

    Monarchies are a little nervous of people that prance around in grand attire being unveiled as a sad old man behind a great curtain.

    People might get thoughts that they oughtened.

  • Comrade Stalin

    It’s not hard, reading the news this morning, to get the impression of a general constitutional crisis. Ordinarily, the scandal tends to be contained within one party (like the Tory sleaze scandals in the 90s) and people can express their displeasure by voting them out. However in this case the voters cannot do this without falling into the hands of the extreme left, or more usually right, wing.

    More scarily, the Prime Minister is conspicuously absent from the media; as Brian commented earlier Cameron appears to be taking the lead with Clegg following closely behind. What a complete mess this government has turned out to be.

  • Columbo

    Agree with Comrade Stalin that a democratic crisis is not too much of a stretch of the imagination. Its a bit like that that Jane Horrocks drama that was on BBC1 a year or two ago where a housewife sweeps to power amid disgust at politicians. If Joanna Lumley were to set up a party one thinks she could do quite well in the current climate!

    Anyone any thoughts on who is in the running to be the next Speaker. Given the scandal, expect there to be much more media and public interest in the selection of an individual infavour of reform and who can be relied on for independence ie not Michael Martin

  • Big Maggie


    “If Joanna Lumley were to set up a party one thinks she could do quite well in the current climate!”

    There’s some mileage in this. If here in Ulster we can have ex-terrorists in government then why not in Britain an actress who fronts a bunch of Asian mercenaries?

  • Columbo

    The tone on the news shows this morning seem to have worsened the prospects for the speaker even since yesterday. Nick Clegg has directly said he should go. Hague has said the matter should be resolved “within days” and Milliband has refused to give an endorsement of support saying he would make his position known once it came before the house. Surely his days are now numbered.

  • rj

    It’s now way past the stage of Martin falling out with Kate Hoey and Norman Baker. Nick Clegg says he must go, Cabinet Ministers are not defending him and senior Tories are saying that the Opposition traditionally defends the Speaker in a way that suggests tradition is over.

    If the Speaker survives because Labour MPs are privately quite happy with his shop steward’s performance, they are likely to end up ever further mired in sleaze.