So, for the first time in over 300 years, the Speaker of The House of Commons has been forced out of his chair.
Will tears be shed? I doubt it. At the best of times, Martin was competent and showed himself to be a passionate man (his warm welcome of to the late Patsy Calton after she regained her seat in 2005 sticks in the mind). Yet he ruffled more feathers than a non-partisan representative should.
It was an uneasy relationship from the start. From the get-go, Martin broke from tradition. A former Clydeside sheet-metal worker, he was the first Roman-Catholic Speaker since the Reformation, and did away with traditional trousers and buckled shoes in favour of his own. Opposition backbenchers were disgruntled at the length of time he gave them to speak in debates, but this is hardly groundbreaking stuff.
The Damian Green affair was the tipping point. Allowing police to arrest an MP was seen badly in the House. As the current expenses row heated up, signs of his fraying temper came to the fore, with slap-downs from the chair to Kate Hoey and Norman Baker. His focus on fixing the leak rather than addressing the expenses issue saw him percieved as someone against reform. As the signatures on the motion of no-confidence piled up, his position became untenable.
Now, enough of this political obituary nonsense, let’s get stuck in.
It’s quite easy to see the resignation of the Speaker as some kind of blood offering from the MPs to the baying public. Hopi Sen makes his point:
“It does strike me as very obvious that Michael Martin has become a convenient scapegoat for others sins, alongside his own…
…In adopting a delay and deflect strategy on expenses and allowances, Martin reflected the frequently stated will of the house. While MPs of all parties may wish to hang him out to dry now, they sheltered under his decisions for a long time…
…While Martin has not covered himself in glory, neither do the MPs who only now emerge to cast ordure at him. As a burnt offering, his deposition would only appease public anger for a little while.”
Well quite, and to an extent I do agree with him. Effectively, MPs have been waiting to see who will err first in this scandal. Martin blinked, and the attack dogs pounced on him, hoping this would satisfy the people. As Hopi says, Martin has/had flaws, but taking the flak for 645 other MPs is a bit much. It is slightly reminiscent of Gordon Brown’s comments recently over the Damien McBride scandal:
I have already taken responsibility for acting on this – first by accepting Mr McBride’s resignation and by making it clear to all concerned that such actions have no part to play in the public life of our country.
Taking responsibility doesn’t equate to letting someone else take the bullet in this case, and it still doesn’t with regards to the Commons and the Speaker.
However, he was correct to go.
Let it not be lost in translation that the Speaker is somehow separate from the people he oversees in the House. Although he has no party alligment, he is still an MP. On top of his Members’ salary of £63,291, he is also entitled to a salary of £78,575. This is on equal footing to a Cabinet Minister and Government Chief Whip, and second only to income of the Prime Minister.
A look at his expenses also shows questionable things. The Speaker has a residence situated in the grounds of the Palace of Westminster, literally next door to the House of Commons. It has been reported he used air miles gained on business trips to fund private breaks, taxis for shopping trips – even go and watch the football at Celtic Park. He has claimed over £87,500 on the second home allowance since 2001/02, which considering his proximity to the House anyway seems a bit untoward. But to make him go on these grounds would be a pot, kettle, black situation.
The main reason is his stubborness and actions. He has resisted change and parliamentary openness for some time, even trying to block details of MPs’ £5m-a-year travel expenses being published under the Freedom of Information Act. In the latest expenses scandal, he has shown resistance to change and a desire to confront those who suggest so (see Kate Hoey). He is also, lest we forget, the chief officer of the House of Commons, meaning he is responsible for the Fees’ Office’s actions as well. Unlike Brown, he can say he knows what responsibilty is.
In the end, I do think the Speaker should have gone for this, but it isn’t an ending that satisfies me entirely. It is similar to chopping the head off of a weed – if you only get rid of what is visible, the deeper workings of it still flourish and will regrow. Uprooting Parliament via a General Election may work, but hoping a new crop of MPs won’t contain one self-servant is naive at best. Make no mistake, it will take years for Parliament to recover its pride after this. Reform, election, reform…it will take a lot of this before the public will be able to trust its oarliamentarians again.