Sympathy for the Speaker

I'm beginning to have a bit of an about-turn as regards Michael Martin, the embattled Commons Speaker. True, he is pretty abysmal at his job, and always has been. His tenure in that high office has suffered from comparison with his distingished predecessors - not just the legendary Betty Boothroyd, but Bernard Weatherill and George Thomas before her, all stamped an indelible authority on the House of Commons, across all party benches. Martin has never really been much more than an over-promoted Labour stooge.

Andy can't keep being subject to the relentless attacks of press pundits and commentators, and the cyclical motion of a small group of media-pleasing MPs in front of the cameras, without starting to think that there may be something more to Martin. It is something of an achievement in the modern, 24-hr news age, for a politician to be able to resist the onward march of calls for his resignation. Yesterday morning, few commentators and journalists were in any doubt that by the end of the day, the Speaker would have to go. But here we are this morning, and not only is he still there, he shows no sign whatsoever of falling on his sword. It is in a bizarre way a fantastic reminder that journalists do not, in fact, have any authority in the House of Commons; that for all the furore outside it is those inside who determine the course of action. We are full of comments - I hold my hands up as one small voice - but we know little of what is actually going on in the Commons day to day. Even the papers who parade their experts spend precious few resources on actually reporting the ordinary business of the Commons. And Martin, though he may be a bit shaky on elements of Commons procedure, clearly sees no reason to let an unelected and unaccountable media determine his future. Whilst only 15 to 20 MPs are prepared to sign a no confidence motion (in the wrong Orders), Martin can carry on in his role at the head of a House of 646 MPs. Let the Daily Mail shriek as it will, or the effortlessly arrogant John Gaunt shout till he's hoarse on Sky News, Martin doesn't need to listen. And in a few weeks, when interest has passed, and the Daily Telegraph has to return to proper reporting with its drastically cut-back journalistic staff, Michael martin will still be in place - a little chastened perhaps, more willing now to consider reform, but definitely still there.

His refusal to budge might usefully also remind us that few reforms are carried out adequately when they are carried out in haste, and at the behest of a charging media behemoth frantically chasing circulation figures and ratings. Thus, Harriet Harman's rapid set of proposals bears more than the whiff of gimmick and people-pleasing, rather than careful thought. For all the discredit that has been heaped on it, I would still rather have a Commons able to conduct its business independent of the media, with time for reflection and the opportunity for careful amendment of the legislation before it. Certainly, they should deal with their bad eggs - although that might more usefully be the task of local party bodies and electorates - but they should not forget their core task of representing the interests of the people through their immersal in the minutiae of politics. There was no better indication of that role than in a small item on the 'Today' programme this morning, reporting that the commons Public Accounts Committee was questioning the availability of low-cost rail fares only over the internet. Chairman Edward Leigh was concerned that this excluded the large numbers of people who either had no access to the web, or had not the time to spend searching for such low-cost fares, and would rather buy them from ticket offices where they are currently not available. Small beer perhaps, but important to the legion of rail travellers spending too much on high cost tickets, and an indication of why we do not want an emasculated House of Commons, whatever their expenses problems.

So after all this trouble, I think I rather hope Michael Martin will survive - at least until the election.


The fact that this is unprecedented and occurred so quickly surprises me. Taking the poison pill was the right thing to do.

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