The House of Commons is an odd place. People try to pretend they don’t know one another’s names even when they do. There’s the curious, formalised sparring by red-faced men who actually quite like each other. And the whole affair is officiated over by a middle-aged metalworker in hosiery, and sometimes a curious wig, referred to only as Mister. It’s like the most surreal fetish party in the world.
Now the first rule of Mister Speaker’s Club is that you do not talk about Mister Speaker. MPs will go on record to criticise their opposing number’s finances, living arrangements, office staff and occasionally even their politics, but not even the most daring and outspoken likes to get on the wrong side of Mr S. And with the present Speaker, Michael Martin, there has been much for them to criticise him about.
Most seriously, there is the Damien Green affair, a sordid tale of police, subterfuge and possible abuse of government power which, if true, should be enough to condemn the Speaker on it’s own – but there is much more. Claims of bias in the chamber, the publicly-funded refurbishment of his home and trips made by him and his wife to destinations as varied as the Bahamas, Hawaii and Harvey Nicks have all popped up as topics for comment by The Observer, the Taxpayers Alliance and former MP Martin bell – so what of his current flock?
Aside from Clare Short suggesting he should soon retire – and she rather has form for that sort of thing – and a smattering of calls to hold inquiries and hearings “sooner rather than later”, you’d have a job to find any MP of any party openly criticising Speaker Martin. Now I confess to a bias; as an adopted Black Country lad, I want Betty back like you wouldn’t believe – Parliament just runs better with a Tiller Girl at the helm – but, even so, I find this astonishing.
A couple of days ago, though, one broke rank – Essex Tory MP Douglas Carswell announced on his blog that the Commons’ Table Office has received and approved the text of a motion he submitted calling on Speaker Martin to resign. Heavy stuff in a culture where even giving an interview against the man is taboo.
It’s early days and this is one of those issues which will either unite or bitterly divide opinion, so I’m getting my two-penneth in now. If this motion gets to the floor, I want to see Nick Clegg leading 62 Liberal Democrat colleagues through the “Aye” lobby to help remove the man who has brought his office into disrepute, overseen the Commons in its darkest hour of recent history, and had his nose in the trough alongside those he should have been reprimanding.
Michael Martin’s supporters will claim he is the victim of class-ism or that the Speaker should be above this sort of criticism. We must be willing to stand up and say that he is being urged to quit, not because he once lived in the centre of Glasgow, or what he did for a living there, but because of what he has been doing since he took up residence in the Palace of Westminster. As for being above criticism “by tradition”, I hope I don’t need to tell anyone the liberal answer to that.
Make no mistake – the Speaker must go, and Liberal Democrats must speak and act to remove him.
* Benjamin Mathis is Vice-Chair of Campaigns for Liberal Youth, and writing in his personal capacity as a Lib Dem member.