The seeds of this debacle were sewn back in 2000 when Betty Boothroyd stepped down. She was pretty much unanimously seen as having done a good job as speaker. The convention was that the speaker comes from the opposition, and this is a convention that the Conservatives kept to throughout their reign (even Margaret Thatcher did so - boo, hiss).
Yet when it came to Labour's turn, they overturned convention and voted one of theirs in, and what is worse, someone who was patently incapable of performing the job. This was ignored by much of the media at the time, yet has had large implications.
Over the last few months (probably since the Damian Green affair) it has been obvious that he has lost the confidence of a significant minority of the house. yet the speaker can only be removed by a vote from the members. If he was from and opposition party, then it would have been easy for the Government to allow a vote (as they would have had a majority). However, they could not be seen to do that as it would have been a vote against one of their own. So they kept him in place as his time as speaker slowly descended into farce.
His speech on Monday was cringe worthy. The chamber seemed to be expecting him to make a sensible, honourable speech, perhaps detailing that he would stand down as speaker at the end of the parliamentary term. That may not have been enough to save him, but it would have diverted much of the fire off him. Instead, he totally ignored the members' valid concerns.
So, what has he done wrong? I would suggest the following list:
- He seems incapable of looking up from pieces of paper as he talks. The speaker needs to be a good orator. Although he is undoubtedly a better public speaker than me, he is terrible. I am not talking about accents or other such fripperies here, but his presentation.
- The speaker needs to be impartial. In my (perhaps also impartial) eyes he has failed this test.
- He has had his own problem with seemingly extravagant expenses claims in the past.
- He has made personal attacks on other members within the house.
- The Damian Green affair. The full truth of this has not yet come out. Michael Martin had the responsibility, yet he passed the blame onto his Serjeant-at-Arms.
- The fees office is run directly by the speaker's office. It is the fees office that has allowed many of the spurious expenses claims. This alone was enough reason for him to go.
- Finally, he tried to block the freedom of Information request. This was a spectacularly ill-judged move.
One of the main bits of information that they have all fallen over themselves to identify about him is his past. The fact that he used to be a flat sheet metal worker and a trade union shop steward as though this is in effect the very reason why he is not up to the job! Not one has bothered to find out why he would make the statements he has made to the House.And my rebuttal:
I care little what his previous job was. Betty Boothroyd performed the role of speaker well, and she was a dancer in her earlier years. People mention it as background information - in the same way people on the left mention Nick Clegg's and David Cameron's previous jobs, or their education. It is rich for a Labour supporter to say 'oh, they dislike him for being a sheet-metal worker', whilst simultaneously deriding Cameron because he went to Eton.
The other claim - that he has been made a scapegoat - is harder to rebut. There is probably some truth in it; however, an MP would have to be very out-of-touch to believe that just changing the speaker would solve all of their woes. Instead, this seems to be used as a mantra by his supporters, allowing them to ignore the absolutely terrible job he has done as speaker.
So: who to replace him?
It is time for a change; not a time for hurried, reactionary legislation (which rarely, if ever, has the intended consequences), but well considered, thoughtful legislation. It needs to be got right first time, and the new speaker will have a significant role in shepherding this through. There will be many candidates, but few will have the required skills. All I ask of the house is that they choose wisely.