Tories to politicise Speaker?

CONSERVATIVE MPs have gone as far as they ever have in talking about their plans to politicise the position of Speaker if they win the next election.

In a post entitled “The Day Speaker Martin Lost His Job”, Iain Dale reports how some Tories were “incandescent” that Michael Martin allowed Dennis Skinner to ask a question at PMQs. Dennis chose to ask about George Osborne’s little local difficulty, and the hard-of-thinking tendency in the Tory Party see a conspiracy. One even threatened the Speaker himself: “One (MP) told me there was no way Tory MPs would stand for him remaining in post if they form a government after the next election.”

So although we have almost no detail about Cameron’s plans for government, we at least know that at least some Tories want to dispense with the tradition that the Speaker is appointed by the whole House. Instead, he or she would be appointed by the government, destroying at a stroke the authority the Speaker must have if he is to carry out his duties.

And what exactly are they moaning about anyway? Dennis has been an MP for nearly 40 years – it would be very rare for an MP of that length of service not to be called at PMQs. There are at least a couple of Tory grandees with similarly impressive records of service who, like Dennis, have no difficulty in catching the Speaker’s eye when they want to ask a question.

Is the anonymous, spine-challenged courageous, principled member who gave this quote to Iain suggesting that the Speaker knew in advance what Dennis would ask? And even if he did know (which he wouldn’t have, incidentally), would that have been a reason to stop him asking a question?

Based on all of this, we can expect a future Conservative-appointed Speaker to insist on knowing what every supplementary question is going to be before he makes a decision on whether or not to call a particular member. He will also not show any preference for long-serving MPs or privy councillors. And he certainly won’t call any Labour MP who the Speaker reckons might ask awkward questions of the Tories.

It’s not that unusual to have had two Speakers in a row drawn from the same party. But I have made it clear to colleagues that, because I strongly oppose even the perception that the Speaker’s chair is in the gift of a particular party, I will, if I’m still in the House when the time comes, vote next time round for a Conservative Speaker. 

If, however, the Tories start playing politics with this most important of positions, then I will rethink my view.

As far as Michael Martin himself is concerned, many observers underestimate the respect and affection in which he is held by members on both sides of the House. One of my abiding memories of this was in February 2005, when the House was playing legislative ping-pong with the House of Lords over the subject of control orders for convicted terrorists (inevitably Dominic Grieve thought the government was being just too, too beastly to the little misunderstood darlings, but now’s not the time to rehash that old argument). Thursday’s business continued through the night until well into what the rest of the world knew as “Friday” but which, according to the Parliamenary authorities, remained Thursday.

We were in uncharted waters, not at all sure where this impasse was going to lead us. There was a great deal of nervousness as well as excitement, most of us having managed to snatch only a couple of hours sleep between sittings.

And then the Speaker, who had gone home as usual on the Thursday, reappeared, unannounced, to take his rightful place in the Chamber. It is difficult to describe the overwhelming sense of relief that we all felt as he shouted out “Order! Order!” in his familiar Glaswegian drawl; relief, mixed with huge affection and respect. The cries of “hear, hear!” came from all sides and all parties.

The Tory who made the claim to Iain Dale about the Speaker’s future is an idiot. I genuinely hope he does not speak for his party, for if he does, then the Tories are playing a dangerous game.

NOTE: Given the political affiliation of many of my regular readers and commenters, I expect some of you will want to express robust opinions. I’m giving fair warning that I will not publish comments that are abusive towards the Speaker. You have been warned.

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31 Comments

Filed under Conservative Party, David Cameron, Parliament

31 responses to “Tories to politicise Speaker?

  1. braddogley

    That is disgraceful; Dennis is Dennis and Gideon should ignore him if he doesn’t like it. I thought politics was for big boys and girls.

  2. John Taylor

    Overall I’d agree with the points you make – and the principle behind them. I hope too that this Tory MP is speaking out of turn/in the heat of the moment.

    But as an observer of Parliament over the last 30 years, I do feel that it is the current government that has politicised the role of Speaker – through failure to alternate, and Mr Martin has done little to resist this impression through his own, sometimes less than impressive, performance.

    You know him (and the government) better than me – but surely perceptions are as important in this matter both for the public and for the opposition.

  3. You clearly didn’t see the Clerk advising The Speaker not to allow the question.

    Tom, this Speaker is an embarrassment to the House of Commons, and this is a view held among Labour MPs too, as you well know.

    My post did nothing to suggest the politicisation of the Speaker’s office and I am surprised that you suggest it did. The Speaker is up for election at the beginning of each Parliament. I am quite sure that Conservative MPs will not vote to reelect him as so many of them have lost confidence in both his ability and his impartiality.

  4. Iain, how can you say that your post did nothing to suggest the politicisation of the speaker’s office? Read your own headline again. Read the comment from your own informant: “One (MP) told me there was no way Tory MPs would stand for him remaining in post if they form a government after the next election.”

    In effect you, by your headline, and your informant are saying that it’s okay for a political party to sack the Speaker. That is outrageous and it is very, very dangerous.

  5. richard

    Given your admonishment I shall try to avoid using the more “robust” expressions that spring to mind when talking about the current Speaker.

    Suffice to say that his conduct within the House of Commons (to say nothing of outside) has brought shame and dishonour on the office that he holds.

    -=-=-

    Personally I think that Menzies Campbell or Ken Clarke would make excellent choices as the next speaker although I suspect that Speaker Martin will be encouraged to stand down just prior to the next election to allow the outgoing Labour Government to place another Labour MP into the post.

  6. DC

    Is there no Lib Dem who would fit the bill?

  7. Alan – there have been occasions in the past where two successive Speakers have come from the Tory party.

  8. Stuart

    You knew what Skinner was going to ask as well as the speaker and everybody else who follows what goes on in the House even a little did, it’s not as if he doesn’t have a long unblemished record of remarks that are always on the line and often over it. How many times has Skinner been thrown out the House for inappropriate remarks?

    Isn’t it a record?

    It wasn’t so long ago that even Mr Martin had to call him to order over another attack on Osborne, this time about drug allegations in the News of the Screws.

    I accept that the order of the questions is randomly decided as it is with most Parliaments; the question I suppose is whether Skinner had a ballot slot for a question or whether it was a supplementary?

    Dale makes a valid point as well; he reckons the Clerks tried to have Martin rule it out of order. There is clearly no conclusive way to demonstrate this, but it seems reasonable to me that they would want to at least suggest he act.

    Let’s not forget that the speaker has form for partisanship from the chair, does anyone remember this?

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article622041.ece

    In that case it was a question that was o.k. one week and out of order the next- random partisanship from the chair.

    The feeling I get is that the speaker has not been the most respected outside of the House, I cannot testify for the mood in the Westminster tea-rooms though.

    The underlying reality is that if anything Labour politicised the selection of the Speaker when they appointed Mr Martin over Sir Alan Haselhurst, her long serving deputy.

    I think in sum, it comes down to the reality that there is a lot of cynicism about the ability of the current speaker to be non-partisan, so much so that it is very easy to conclude that he is partisan when he makes a gaffe or exercises poor judgement.

    It seemed right to you guys at the time, but in hindsight? Not so much.

  9. Johnny Norfolk

    Tom as usual it is Labour that have had 2 labour speakers on the trot. the present speaker should have come from the Tory ranks. So it is labour who have politicised the role by not following convention. My word you do have selective memory.

  10. Johnny – I think perhaps it is you who have a selective memory. I’m sure you recall when the Tory MP and Speaker, Douglas Clifton Brown, stepped down in 1951 and was succeeded by another Tory, William Morrison.

  11. Rapunzel

    I’m old enough to remember when both main parties were hoping that one of theirs would not be chosen as Speaker because there was barely a majority in the commons and they couldn’t afford to lose a member’s vote.

    Really enjoyed the question today though.

  12. David Boothroyd

    Morrison, known as ‘Shakes’ because he was always quoting Shakespeare, was one of the worst Speakers of the last century. His contribution to enhancing the prestige of Parliament was to enforce a rule which said that the House of Commons could only debate whether it was right to hang someone, after they had been hanged.

    The man he beat for the role, on a whipped party line vote in 1951, was the excellent Leeds Labour MP Major James Milner. Sadly it was not for another forty years that a Yorkshirian Labour MP would show how the job should be done.

  13. Random

    Martin himself politicised the post. He has openly favoured the Labour government both in the way he administers his role and even, horrifically, in the statements he has made favouring the government.

    This is just another case where he has done so. You say that it is unsurprising that Skinner “caught [the speaker’s] eye” but fail to acknowledge that the speaker has suppressed equivalent questions from the opposition, and should have done so in this case.

  14. Johnny Norfolk

    Tom . 2 wrongs do not make a right.

  15. Paul

    Skinner catches the Speakers’ eye for a very good reason – he’s always in the Chamber!

    I never quite understand why so many MPs believe it is there given right to be called for a question, yet when it comes down to it they can only be bothered to flit in and out of the Chamber for the odd vote.

    Sadly, i feel that for most MPs and ministers the Chamber is actually an inconvenience.

  16. Parasite

    Considering the contempt Labour have had for the institutions of the country over the past 11 years, and the contempt Martin has had for the traditionally non-partisan role of Speaker, you can hardly be surprised that the Conservatives are up for redressing the balance.

  17. The role of Speaker has already been politicised, and the current speaker has been less than impartial.
    He has done more than anyone to bring the role into disrepute.

  18. Zorro

    I have no problem with someone from a ‘poor’ background being speaker. I have no problem with a Scot being speaker. I have no problem with a Labour MP being speaker. I don’t even in principle have a problem with two Labour MPs being speaker in a row, although I can only imagine what the few labour supporters would have to say if we end up with two Tories in a row after the next election!

    I do have a problem that the current incumbent who simply does not seem to understand the importance of the role he plays or he does not care, preferring to do what’s right for his party over whats right for the country. The same as the Gordon and most of the rest of the Labour party there then…

    Even if the Tories were to do as you suggest, it would be Michael Martin who brought it on.

  19. The election of speaker is a complex series of votes. Michael Martin faced 10 other nominees last time out. Sir Alan Haselhurst, Alan Beith, Mrs Gwnyth Dunwoody, Sir George Young, Menzies Campbell, David Clark, Nicholas Winterton, John McWilliam, Michael Lord, Sir Patrick Cormack and Richard Shepherd.

    The entire procedure of nominations and votes is far more complex than even the US Electoral college system.

  20. Joe – thank you for pointing that one out – it slipped through.

  21. Billy Bunter

    You’re a f****** laugh Harris. The Tories don’t need to politicise the post of Speaker, as you have successfully done it already, in the form of Speaker Martin, whose contempt for PMQs and the protocols of Parliamentary debate demean democracy.

    Democracy. You might like to check it out

    http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fen.wikipedia.org%2Fwiki%2FDemocracy&ei=RF4ASfySG6bGQeCatNoN&usg=AFQjCNEIp7oZyd77GwfrGcTchB0cYFv6bQ&sig2=htgaKBDtbme621Tk62aqYQ

    Great to have Mandy back, innit? Akin to blocking up the sewage system with concrete. Everyone gets covered in foul-smelling ordure.

    By the way – they are keeping quiet re the fact that Mandelson was in fact sailing with Rothschild. No conflict of interest there eh? I mean, we all know Mandelson to be clean as the driven snow.

    Martin Bell convinced the full story of his dodgy mortgage has been suppressed. See yesterday’s Guardian.

    Mind you, great laugh seeing Brown ask for an inquiry.

    Into what? No laws have been broken. Convenient smokescreen for the fact that the Northern Rock debt has suddenly disappeared of the Nation Debt figures.

  22. joe bonanno

    psst billy bunter – do investigate tinyurl.com or snipurl.com.

    I’m not in disagreement with your post mind.

  23. I would have said that Martin mainly damaged himself yesterday not when he called Dennis Skinner but when he completely failed to keep order in the Commons – including an infuriating constant drone of talk through Nick Clegg’s question, which, given I have hearing difficulties, I had trouble understanding in consequence.

    What was it Clare Short once said – a Speaker should be someone who puts the dignity and good running of the Commons first at all times, above party or any other consideration. In her view, parenthetically, that made Bernard Wetherill the best speaker of her Parliamentary tenure. If Martin can show that he can restore some discipline, fine – if not, then he is clearly a bad speaker and needs to go.

    And while I agree that the Speaker should not be appointed solely for political reasons, given that he always was until about 1938, it’s a bit difficult to see how any argument about the impartiality of the office can be sustained beyond a certain limit.

    Moreover, there is a perception – fair or otherwise – that Martin was a weak speaker deliberately appointed by Tony Blair through the sham of a vote using his then 179 majority to help entrench the already vast power conferred by that majority and limit scrutiny of legislation (much of which was either badly written or totally unnecessary – according to the then Cabinet Secretary anyway). Which means that the perception of impartiality – surely at least as important as the reality of it – has already been shattered.

    In conclusion, while I was also a bit bothered about Iain Dale’s comments on the desire of the Tories to turf out the speaker, I think you may be flogging a dead horse here.

  24. There’s always a “constant drone of talk” during Nick Clegg’s contribution – kind of a House of Commons tradition, plus it gives us something to do while Nick’s speaking.

  25. If the Tories are so incensed by Speaker Martin why not contest his parliamentary seat at the next election. That is a less dangerous convention to breach than whipping a vote to depose him (which is effectively what Iain Dale has suggested will/should happen).

  26. Tom, quick as you were to impute party political motives to Iain’s anonymous Tory MP, he didn’t actually say that the Tories would vote to remove Martin and replace him with a Tory, nor that this would be a whipped decision.

    The possibility should be considered that Tory MPs dislike Michael Martin not because he’s Labour, but because he’s Michael Martin.

  27. Prentia Clove

    Well, Speaker Martin has been as partial as any speaker in recent history. There is precedents for having consecutive speakers from the same party. However, I remember a lot of fuss at the time Mr Martin was elected because it was widely expected that Peter Brooks would get the job.

    T. Harris Esq certainly wasn’t crtitical of Labour using its majority to get the candidate of its choice (which is all that Iain Dale is suggesting the Tories will do, if you read his post without the disadvantage of party affiliation) when Speaker Boothroyd stepped down (and she, a Labour MP, was elected in a House with a Tory majority).

    Finally, the comment about Dennis Skinner is somewhat disingenuous. Dennis Skinner stands up to be called for every question at every PMQs. As I can see that on the TV, I am surprised that Mr Harris cannot see it in the chamber. Yet Speaker Martin rarely calls him. But yesterday he did. Hmmm.

  28. Ed

    Seems more like the Conservatives wanting to de-politicise the speaker. It’s not a party issue, it’s a Michael Martin issue. I dare say if Betty Boothroyd was a candidate next time it wouldn’t be a problem. I’m sure there are many other eligible MPs.

  29. I agree with Ed. Let’s not forget how resistant Mr. Martin was to resigning his membership of the Labour Party as a requirement of taking up the post. He has not exactly acted in good faith in his role.

    I think your point is of questionable validity contingent on who they would replace him with. If it is a partisan then I would agree with you. As it stands however that suggestion has not been made.

  30. bob melton

    I bet the MP in question was Douglas Carswell. Up to Iain to say if I’m wrong.

    What is Dale’s evidence for one of the clerks having spoken to the Speaker?

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