Alan Watkins: Let the PM answer questions, Mr Speaker

Gordon Brown seems to enjoy special Commons protection, but his fellow Scot should remember he has a duty to the whole House
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The Independent Online

I t is not entirely his fault (though he has not always gone out of his way to help himself), but Mr Speaker Michael Martin has found himself in several difficulties lately. There has been the row of MPs' expenses or, as old criminal lawyers prefer to call it, embezzlement. There has been the fuss about MPs who have their telephones tapped. Not least, there have been accusations – not merely from the Opposition – that Mr Gordon Brown is being allowed to get away with too much.

The last charge should be considered separately. It is about whether undue favour is being shown to the Government of the day; or not, as the case may be. The first two charges concern parliamentary practice. The Speaker and the backbenchers are lined up against the leaders of the political parties, the press and, as far as one can see, the entire population of the United Kingdom.

The Speaker has now been in his chair for eight years – longer than some incumbents, about average for those who have served a whole term. He is still only 62, though politicians have been growing steadily younger. Mr Derek Conway was being tipped as his successor at the time of Mr Conway's disgrace.

When Mr Martin was originally chosen as Speaker in 2000, his chief rival was Sir George Young. Sir George was called "the bicycling baronet" – if only by the popular prints, though not by anyone else. He possessed a lugubrious manner and was much liked, as he still is.

As chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee (a position which he secured as consolation prize for not being made Speaker), he it was who administered a rebuke to Mr Conway. In the circumstances, this was no more than a telling-off. The penalty was increased to suspension by the committee and the deprivation of the Tory whip by Mr David Cameron.

An attempt to defend Mr Conway's character was made by my old friend Bruce Anderson in The Independent last week, on the basis that Mr Conway had served as a major in the Territorial Army. But the defaulting major is a stock comic character in English fiction. Sir George behaved with the greatest lenity, whether commendably or not it is not for me to say.

Eight years previously, he had been the subject of a peasants' revolt: the Labour back benches did not want a baronet, whether bicycling or not, and however enlightened and agreeable he might be. Instead they chose a sheet-metal worker from Glasgow. Almost at once, Mr Martin became a victim of the parliamentary sketchwriters. The other recent recipient of this treatment was Sir Menzies Campbell, a Scot likewise, though he spoke differently. But Mr Martin, for his part, had a soft, pleasant voice. I could understand perfectly everything he said, which was not so, say, of the late Danny McGarvey of the boilermakers' union.

Mr Martin's trouble was not so much that people failed to understand what he was saying as that they could understand him only too well. He had – still has – a tendency to be self-regarding. And he came to the Chair carrying a certain amount of luggage with him. As a previous chairman of a Commons' committee, he had secured the withdrawal of various privileges formerly conceded to journalists visiting the Terrace and other agreeable places.

His predecessor, Madam Speaker Boothroyd (1992-2000), could have gone on to become President of the Republic, if only we had possessed the sense to establish such a system of government. Mr Speaker King (1965-71) was an affable character who suffered from the delusion, shared by many politicians, that dry white wine was a non-alcoholic beverage. Mr Speaker Lloyd (1971-76) and Mr Speaker Weatherill (1983-92) were models of their kind, the latter having been consistently under-estimated, as, indeed, he still is.

Only Mr Speaker Thomas (1976-83) was over-indulged, constantly sucking up to Margaret Thatcher and her ministers and doing his old friends in the Labour Party (including James Callaghan's government) no favours of any kind. Mr Martin's instincts are to favour authority. But in the case of the MPs' allowances, which authority is he to prefer? It is difficult to say. When the row first broke out, Mr Brown's office said that existing family arrangements would remain undisturbed. Mr Cameron's office indicated much the same.

In a few days' time, both leaders were taking a more stringent view. The young people employed by both party headquarters were entering into an auction to see which powder could wash whiter. The House of Commons was left nowhere in the bidding. It was a question of securing a party-political advantage, with the press as arbiters.

The matter of telephone interceptions is being judged in exactly the same way. It is a question for the House of Commons. But then, it turns out that it is not for the House at all. As originally promulgated, the doctrine was laid down by Harold Wilson in 1966. I remember it well. To get him out of a tight spot, he framed a comprehensive prohibition.

At the time, and for some years afterwards, the ban was accepted by enlightened opinion. Shortly after 2001, this opinion changed, as opinion does tend to. Now even the human rights group Liberty is calling for the interception of communications. The security services want to carry on intercepting, but on their terms and in their own way. As I say, it is not Mr Speaker Martin's fault. The separation of powers is always breaking down.

But there is still one area which is reasonably easy to police. Ever since Mr Brown became Prime Minister, he has been allowed an extraordinary latitude in attacking the Conservatives.

From time to time Mr Tony Blair would be called to order by the Speaker. Mr Blair would be reproved because the Prime Minister was not responsible for the actions or the policies of the Conservative Party. Mr Blair would proceed to get out of things as best he could manage. It was all a game, and very good at it did Mr Blair turn out to be.

I remember the early exchanges between Harold Macmillan and Hugh Gaitskell in 1961. The two leaders disliked each other, but Macmillan concealed his feelings better. "Very useful suggestion," Macmillan would say. "Much appreciated, I'm sure. Food for thought."

Wilson treated Macmillan with a certain weary respect, but the decline in manners started with the accession of Alec Home in 1963. Wilson treated him as a punchbag. Mr Blair did not manage that with Sir John Major but he did have an ascendancy over him, as he had over his Tory successors except Mr William Hague.

Time after time in the past few months has the Speaker been compelled to rescue Mr Brown. "Let the Prime Minister speak..." is the most common form of protection, which is perfectly fair, up to a point, for those Tories do make an awful lot of noise. The less obvious form of protection is for the Speaker to allow Mr Brown to attack a non-existent Conservative government. It is not for Mr Brown to question Mr Cameron but for Mr Cameron to question Mr Brown.