Tuesday, 19 May 2009

One Down. 600-odd to go

by johnofgwent

And so it begins. The Speaker will be toast by the time this day is out. But it is the profile of the man nicknamed Gorbals Mick for his "common upbringing" that I want to concentrate on. A profile the BBC are happy to provide me with.

The Speaker has come under fire for his own expenses claims in the past, but now it is his reaction to the allegations levied against others that has provoked harsh criticism. Earlier this week, he told the Commons there must be a police investigation into the source of the leak to the Daily Telegraph.

When other MPs - Kate Hoey among them - suggested that the issue of the expenses themselves, rather than their release, was paramount, Mr Martin reacted angrily, saying he had already heard Ms Hoey's "pearls of wisdom on Sky News". Since then calls have been growing for the Speaker to step down with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg the most senior politician to join the campaign. He has accused Mr Martin of being a "dogged defender of the status quo", and a major obstacle to greater "transparency and accountability" in the expenses system.

In December, after the Met Police's anti-terror squad raided the office of Tory MP Damian Green, Mr Martin was accused of failing to protect both MPs' rights and the power of Parliament to hold government to account. When the Speaker revealed that officers had not had a warrant to search Mr Green's office, the Commons erupted and Mr Martin found his head on the block. He insisted that while he had known about the raid in advance, he was not aware of the absence of a warrant and resisted all calls to step down.

Mr Martin is MP for Glasgow North East but, as Speaker, he ceases to represent any party and is expected to be neutral - but there have been mutterings that he favours former Labour colleagues. First elected in 1979 as MP for Glasgow Springburn, the teetotaller was seen as on the right of his party and a social conservative on matters such as abortion and homosexuality. After his elevation to the post of Speaker in 2000, he began with a press conference - provoking critics to say he had broken the convention of keeping a distance from the media.

The first Roman Catholic to serve in the role since the Reformation, Mr Martin has not been shy to dispose of other centuries-old traditions. He did away with the tights worn by Speakers in favour of dark flannel trousers and continued the precedent set by his predecessor as Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, by dispensing with the traditional wig. He also appointed the first PR adviser to the House of Commons Commission.

Mr Martin is paid a salary roughly equivalent to that of a cabinet minister and is expected to keep order, ensure balanced debates and call MPs to speak. But the first comments alleging bias came just one month in the role.

Mr Martin expelled pro-Israeli Tory MP John Butterfill from the Commons, after he complained he had not been called to speak during a debate, while six pro-Arab MPs had been.

In October 2001, he had to apologise after speaking up in favour of Home Secretary David Blunkett's abolition of the voucher scheme for asylum seekers.

Mr Martin has also faced attacks from the government benches. In February 2002, he told off Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, and then prime minister Tony Blair, for raising what he described as party matters during prime minister's questions. Charles Clarke, then Labour Party chairman, was quoted in the Times newspaper in 2002 as saying Mr Martin had "become an embarrassment" - but he later denied saying this.

In 2006, Mr Martin provoked uproar in the Commons by stopping Tory leader David Cameron asking Tony Blair whom he wanted as "his successor". Mr Martin insisted prime minister's questions was meant for discussing government business, not party matters. Mr Cameron called the decision "bizarre and extraordinary".

Last year, the Speaker's own allowances came under the spotlight - including claims he had flown members of his family in business class from Glasgow to London for a New Year break, using air miles gained from official trips. Newspapers went on to report that Mr Martin had claimed £17,000 a year for his home in Scotland and £7,500 in costs for using the property as an office.

Bye-Bye Mr Martin. Some may think you a cynical manipulator of procedure. Some may consider you to have brought the whole pf parliament into disrepute with your attempts to hide the behaviour of MP's from the public gaze. And some may just think that the house cannot go on without a new man at the head.

Personally I think there is something in all three of those. But that's just my personal opinion