Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mr Speaker

In 1695 Sir John Trevor, Speaker of the House of Commons in the English parliament, was forced to resign due to corruption. He had accepted a bribe. He did however retain his role as a senior judge – Master of the Rolls.

This will not be the fate of Michael Martin, current speaker of House, who has just announced his resignation. He is embroiled in a scandal in which the political parties have colluded to create an expense and favour regime which can only be described as imbued with largess. The scheme, overseen by a committee of the House Chaired by the Speaker and managed day to day by servants of the House, permits such things as: payments for mortgages in second homes for MP’s even though the mortgage no longer exists; payments for furniture, refurbishment; payments for some staff, including spouses and offspring; payments for decoration and repairs. So far, some seventy MP’s have been “outed” for what the public see as outrageous payments and for “fiddling” while the country burns its way through debt and recession.

Michael Martin’s offenses are threefold. The first is that he is the public face of the House of Commons. As Speaker his primary role is to protect the integrity and honour of the House. Both are in tatters. The second offense is that he sought, though legal means and others, to keep the expenses of MP’s from ever being made public. He used his authority to steer a legal challenge to the Freedom of Information Act aimed at exempting MP’s expenses from disclosure. His final offence is that he failed to read the mood of the country and of the Commons. Over twenty MP’s had signed a no confidence motion against him and there was a minor, if typically polite and very British, rebellion against him in the House yesterday when he read a statement which ignored the issue of his own culpability in these matters.

He will go before the summer recess in a few weeks and a new Speaker will be chosen, The odds are heavily in favour of a very different voice – that of Frank Field. A former Cabinet Minister who has made a career of being a Labour Party MP critical of his own party and whose standing has risen so that he is now thought more highly of than when he was in Cabinet. More significantly, through journalism, he has developed a firm commitment to the underdog and has integrity – something desperately needed in the House.

Changing the Speaker will not change the mood of the country – which is palpably viscous. The normally sedate BBC program Question Time was amongst the most raucous shows in BBC news history, rivaling Jerry Springer. The public are in the mood for a hanging.

Changing the Speaker will also make little difference to the underlying issue, which is now the complete loss of confidence in the House and the honesty of MP’s. Only an election will affect this and Gordon Brown, the beleaguered Prime Minister, knows that calling an election now would seal the fate of his Government and his party for at least a generation. While David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, will win, he will do so with a smaller majority than would have been the case before the scandal broke – some of his own colleagues are amongst the worst offenders in the expense scandal.

These are momentous days in British political history, but they are unpleasant. We can expect more turbulence and an emergency landing before the House can take flight again.

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