The MP expenses scandal has rocked Westminster for over a month now (with more revelations *still* emerging). Many MPs have found their careers cut short – among them Speaker Michael Martin (a man who never should have got the job back in 2000, but that’s beside the point).
As is the way of things these days, public and press outrage over the perceived piss-taking by MPs of all parties has led parliament to jump to entirely the wrong conclusion. In hunting for a scapegoat, they picked on Michael Martin; in the process, they tarnished the office of Speaker itself with smears designed primarily to hit this man they had collectively decided to blame. “Oh,” they said, “If only we had someone like Boothroyd or Weatherill this never would have happened!” Yet despite professing that it was the man, not the office, which had been found wanting, it looks as if the next Speaker is intended to “update” and “make relevant” an institution that has doing very well, thank you very much, without any meddling from mere gadfly politicians.
Altering the office of Speaker is not what is required. That way lies failure and recrimination down the line. Because we cannot do constitutional reform – not when it’s hasty; not when it’s carried out by politicians; and most especially, it would seem, not when it’s carried out by the lot we’ve got at the moment. (Remember the half-arsed attempt to reform the House of Lords, that has left us in an arguably worse situation than we had before? The dismal attempt to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor? The various residual angers and squabbles over devolution? The back-of-an-envelope creation of a supreme court? The constant renaming of government departments, often at vast expense and with no discernible impact? The gradual downscaling of both the Cabinet and parliament, hand-in-hand with the politicisation of the previously stringently impartial civil service?)
The office of Speaker has been brought into disrepute? One Speaker’s failures over a nine-year period is enough to destroy the respectability of a position that has existed (more or less) since the 14th century? By the same logic, shouldn’t we abolish the office of Prime Minister about now?
What we need is not to alter the office of Speaker and “make it more relevant”, as seems to be the buzz phrase at the moment. We need someone respectable, unimpeachable, with an intricate understanding of the rules of parliament (something Martin never had), a sense of the history of the place, and an ability to stand up for what’s right in the face of overwhelming opposition from a chamber full of shouty, petulant MPs.
Few of the candidates can live up to this:
- Margaret Beckett is a party animal through and through, heavily implicated in the expenses scandal
- Sir Alan Beith is another party man – and to have former deputy leader of any party take over such a high profile position at this stage is just silly, even if he is only a Lib Dem
- Sir George Young is a former Secretary of State, and therefore he too has too much of the party man about him
- John Bercow is both incredibly smug and, with only 12 years in the Commons, too inexperienced
- Parmjit Dhanda only entered the Commons in 2001, so just cannot be taken seriously no matter how intelligent and earnest he may seem
- Anne Widdecombe is more a TV personality than a politician these days, and is stepping down at the next election anyway, so really – what’s the point?
- Sir Alan Haselhurst put £12,000 on his expenses for gardening over four years, based on a figure just £1 below the receipt threshold every month throughout that time, so surely can no longer be a contender
- Richard Shepherd is a man of principle, no doubt, but with the ongoing difficulties over the positioning of the UK within the EU I can’t see the Commons going for one of the most fervent of the Maastricht rebels (plus he’s a friend of Robert Kilroy-Silk, which must show poor judgement, surely?)
Which leaves us with two genuinely decent candidates: Sir Michael Lord, and Sir Patrick Cormack. Both Tories? Yes. Both with Knighthoods? Yes. Between them, they have 65 years in the House (39 of those Cormack). Lord, like Shepherd, was a Maastricht rebel – but I wouldn’t discount him for that, as it does, after all, show some independence. More impressively, however, Cormack was a Poll Tax rebel – one of the very few Tories to refuse to support that most unpopular of policies, and was also the first MP to force a debate on the Yugoslav crisis in the 1990s – much against the wishes of the then government (which was, yes, Tory again).
Yes, I’m biased here – I used to work for Cormack. This does, however, also mean that I’ve seen his character up close and know him to be a man with a genuine, passionate belief in doing the right thing. The Telegraph’s Ben Brogan seems to see much of the same in him that I do.
If you want to return a sense of decorum to the Commons, what better than someone who knows the place inside out, with four decades’ experience? What better than someone who’s been through ten general elections and seven Prime Ministers, who’s seen countless MPs come and go – and yet has, throughout, watched the institution of parliament endure, despite all the scandals, all the infighting, all the failures and ill-considered reforms?
We don’t need a big media star – the Speaker should never *be* high-profile, that was part of the reason Martin had to go – we need someone who can command quiet respect. We don’t need rapid reform – we need someone with a sense of perspective who can take a step back and calmly assess, because that is what the Commons has been lacking above all during the last few weeks. Cormack would be ideal.
Which is, of course, why he almost certainly won’t get it. When was the last time MPs voted for something to do with the running of parliament that actually makes sense?