Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Speaker: When, Not If

The Speaker's position is untenable. There was a point when he might have rallied sufficient support by blaming the noises off on a media plot or party politics from part of the right, and on those who look down on him by calling him 'Gorbals Mick'. But no longer.

Newsnight's anonymous poll of MPs last night found that 58 has lost confidence, 67 said they had confidence in him and 53 refused to answer. (Some of those will be on a 'refusal of all surveys' ticket, so it is impossible to tell how many reflect a deliberate abstention). But the proportion of lost confidence is far too high.

That feeling is widespread among all MPs of all parties following the disastrous handling of the MPs expenses issues . The long failure to get to grips with how claims were dealt with or to seriously engage with the need to reform was bad enough. The mistake of not moving quickly to release the informaton even as it is being serially released in The Telegraph day by day continues. Using the chair to attack individual MPs who had spoken in the media was the point of no return.

The Guardian reports and editorialises that it is time to go, as does The Telegraph's leader.

In the Commons, the Speaker remains somewhat protected by convention. David Cameron says that is why he can not publicly criticise the Speaker. Other MPs share that view, fearing public criticism of the impartial referee of the House's proceedings risking making the Speakership more political than it ought to be, and worrying that Martin may increase in stubbornness if criticised outside the House in the media.

There is an element of self-preservation too. Those who speak out early have been brave - as they may well risk rarely being called to speak again if the Speaker lasts for most of the next year. An MP told me that was why several were employing the public formula that the Speaker's position was "a distraction" from the need for reform, when their view is that he needs to go both to ensure reform is carried through and as one of the steps to rebuild public confidence.

Michael White offers a sympathetic profile of Martin, while acknowledging that he has not been up to the job: "Kind" is a word MPs in all parties use to describe him in private, even those who know he is not quite right for the job in either its public or private functions", writes White.

The real debate now will be about whether a signal that Martin will not be standing again is enough, or whether a new Speaker is needed within weeks rather than months as part of the process of urgent reform.

Human sympathy for Martin and the wish to avoid a messy showdown weigh in favour of the former; the desire to avoid a by-election is the wrong instinct entirely. This is not the moment for tactical political thinking - and there may be a rather high price to pay since acting slowly that risks leaving the political system mired in mistrust.

Still, Michael White concludes that:

Chances are that Martin will step down close to the general election, close enough to avoid a byelection under the three month rule, but time enough for an experienced House to elect someone they all know, this time by secret ballot.

That suggests an announcement next Spring.

The Commons almost certainly should move sooner. Tabling a no confidence

Whether they will or not remains in the balance.

Two further points:

It is better for this Parliament to choose a successor. There are several candidates in all parties who could command the respect of the House. Sir Ming Campbell had emerged as the favourite. (I felt complaints of his own expenses claims on a rented flat were rather overplayed, though he has paid back some money).

And could we not also now drop the ludicrous approach where the voters of one entire constituency is disenfranchised at the General Election so it has the honour of electing a Speaker unopposed. That could simply involve creating a Speakers' Constituency to cover the Palace of Westminster.


FloTom said...

The government must stop supporting this Speaker he is a National Disaster.

eric joyce said...

Michael Martin is opposed at every election. Take a look at his constituency profile, Glasgow North East, at