Explaining Michael Martin’s Exit

Nick Clegg can feel today that he has played an important part in a real move forward for the House of Commons, with the departure of Michael Martin now forthcoming. However, listening to comments from the public on today’s Daily Politics and yesterday’s Five Live Drive, it’s also clear to me that the public doesn’t share the view of many in the commons that this is an important step.

To those who follow politics, the case against Michael Martin requires no explanation. But I suspect that in their rush to do something to clean up the system, many of our politicians have allowed themselves to forget that most members of the public don’t really know what Martin has done, and if nobody makes the case to them, it would be very easy for them to conclude that Martin is a scapegoat, as his apologists have been claiming.

The sense that the Speaker is a figurehead, and therefore ultimately responsible, is the most immediately obvious reason for his removal, but it’s the wrong one. It’s not a general principle that has led to his downfall, it is a very specific record of opposition to opening up the Commons to scrutiny. No, Michael Martin doesn’t bare complete responsibility for this, we in the Lib Dems ought to ask questions of our own representative on the Members Estimate Committee, and those MPs from the Labour and Tory parties who voted down reforms should reflect on their own role in all of this.

But that doesn’t mean the Speaker hasn’t shown himself, in the stances he has taken protecting MPs from too much scrutiny, and being primarily concerned with maintaining their privacy rather than in opening up Parliament, to be, as Nick Clegg put it at the weekend, a “dogged defender of the status quo”. Just ask any of those MPs who have been trying to get more of these details out in the open, like Norman Baker, how helpful Michael Martin has been. The Speaker made his attitudes clear in his outburst to Kate Hoey and Norman Baker a few days ago. Anyone with much political sense who watched that should be in no doubt that the Speaker is no scapegoat.

What needs to happen now, though, if the tide is not to turn against Nick Clegg, is that firstly we must continue to make and defend the case against Michael Martin, and not give way to the temptation to leave him alone now he’s going. Those who want to paint us as political opportunists won’t stop pushing their scapegoat line, so we shouldn’t either. Secondly, we need to be visibly moving forward in cleaning up other aspects of this problem, perhaps deselecting Ming Campbell and Richard Younger Ross (that’s up to their local parties, of course). I wonder what the outcome of the Federal Exec meeting was, after the mutterings about Chris Rennard….

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