So the Speaker has gone, forced from office by the expenses scandal that has engulfed Westminster.
Traditionally a job for life, the Speaker of the House of Commons is one of the highest offices in the land, ranking only below the prime minister, the lord chancellor and two archbishops. But there was nothing traditional about Michael Martin’s time as speaker.
The first Catholic to hold the post since the Reformation, proudly working class (he and his wife dined on macaroni and lemonade during their first evening in the palatial Speaker’s House) and determined to do away with the knee breeches and wig associated with the role since time immemorial, Martin looked like he could have been a reformer.
However, reform there came none. During the very years in which the executive became so dominant and reduced the authority of the House of Commons, Michael Martin did nothing to defend the sovereignty of this august body. As sofa government took hold under Tony Blair, more and more MPs lined up to argue Parliament’s case: Lords reform was needed, stronger select committees were needed and, it now emerges, reform of salaries and expenses was needed.
In his unique and powerful position over the Commons, the Speaker could have initiated changes and reforms, or at least have authoritatively pointed MPs in that direction. Instead it has taken a newspaper campaign, the release every day for almost two weeks of MPs’ expense claims and allegations of outrageous misuse of public funds, to bring these issues to prominence.
Combined with his bungling over the search without a warrant by police of Conservative MP Damian Green’s office, and his shocking attack on the harmless Kate Hoey, the writing should have been on the wall.
But such is the exalted position of the Speaker that hardly anybody thought he would resign. He may be inarticulate and he may have a poor grasp of the procedures of the House of Commons, but Speakers do not quit and they are not sacked, it just does not happen. And there was the argument that with a general election only a year away, Martin should preside over whatever reforms are recommended by Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and let a new parliament under new rules elect a new speaker.
But as the Daily Telegraph churned out further damaging revelations the scandal turned into crisis, the biggest since Suez according to one commentator. And as the sense of crisis grew the murmurings for Martin’s resignation, for that is all they were, turned into a clarion call. Suddenly it was no longer enough that individual MPs would be punished, nor that a Cabinet reshuffle is likely to see Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, booted out, nor that other MPs, such as Douglas Hogg, will not be standing at the next election.
Only one person can take responsibility for the system itself and that person is the Speaker, and that is why Michael Martin had to go.
It was a stunning departure, the first resignation of a speaker in over two centuries, and it has shaken the House of Commons to its core. His friends will continue to carp that he was ousted unfairly, because of his class, his accent or even his religion, but they do him a disservice. He may not have been a good Speaker, but he has done the right thing.