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.