Mr Speaker was once a fitter, you know

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The Independent Online

The row about Mr Speaker Martin dropped down the news schedules last week, but that is not a reason for omitting to examine it in this column. Indeed, the cooling of passions will enable us to arrive at a more just assessment.

In carrying out this exercise I propose to use an unusual, even eccentric procedure: to quote what the participants actually said. The fashion today is either to summarise their words or, more adventurously, to report what the writer thought they really meant. In fact the last approach is the origin of the flourishing craft of "spinning" – of aides, in the United States to begin with, giving a speech a slant or spin, often before it has even been delivered.

The row over Mr Speaker is, ostensibly, about his ruling at Prime Minister's Questions a few weeks ago that MPs (notably the Leader of the Opposition) could not question Mr Tony Blair on the affairs of the Labour Party. Conversely, Mr Blair would not be able to attack Mr Iain Duncan Smith on the policies of the Conservatives. This follows logically, as the Tory backbenchers were quick to appreciate.

On 30 January the following exchange occurred:

Duncan Smith: Will the Prime Minister tell us how much the RMT union has given to the Labour Party over the past financial year? Blair: The answer is that I do not know the precise sum and there is no particular reason why I should. However, the right honourable gentleman will know that we have made our position totally clear on the strikes...

Duncan Smith: According to the Electoral Commission, the answer is in excess of £84,000. Of course, the union also gives extra perks to certain members of the Cabinet, whom we already know. Yet that is a union... (Interruption.)

Mr Speaker: Order. Let the Leader of the Opposition speak.

Duncan Smith: ...The Prime Minister's party is still making money from the union ...

On this occasion the Speaker did not intervene to halt Mr Duncan Smith. On the contrary: he helped him on his way by asking for quiet. The episode was regarded as in no way exceptional, merely as part of the normal asperities of political life. But a week later, on 6 February, things had changed.

Duncan Smith: ...Perhaps the Prime Minister can tell us, as leader of the Labour Party, how much money the unions gave his party last year.

Blair: ...Well, the amount of money given to the Labour Party – thanks to the procedures we introduced – is there for people to see...

Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister took a long time not to answer the question. Let us now give him the answer. The figure is £8m, in a six-month period last year – and in the case of two unions that are either on strike or about to strike, it is nearly £1.25m.

Mr Speaker: Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the Leader of the Opposition, but I must tell him that the Prime Minister is here to answer questions as Prime Minister, not as leader of the Labour Party... Order. I am talking about the rules of the House, which the House has given me to protect. Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition could ask another question.

Quite cleverly for a beginner, Mr Duncan Smith proceeded to ask the question in another form. Even so, there was unrest in the House, disquiet outside it. If Mr Duncan Smith – or any other member of the Opposition – could not question Mr Blair about the numerous iniquities of the People's Party, what could he ask?

The Speaker was clearly interfering with the normal course of party politics. He had evidently made an error; worse, committed a gaffe, a word rarely used outside newspapers. The parliamentary sketchwriters descended on him like ravening wolves from the hills. They are a fine body of men, the sketchwriters (so far there are no women). Some of them are friends of mine. One of these, Mr Frank Johnson of The Daily Telegraph, has refused to join in the baiting of Mr Martin on grounds of class solidarity and because he thinks he is a good Speaker.

Mr Speaker was right on 6 February and he was wrong a week previously, when he had allowed Mr Duncan Smith to get away with it. There was a clear precedent on 21 May 1996 in the days of Madam Speaker Boothroyd:

Ian Davidson: Will the Prime Minister [John Major] tell the House about the foreign policy implications, and the implications for our troops on the ground, of the governing party's decision to accept lots and lots of Bosnian Serb money? Does he accept that our troops cannot be seen as impartial...

Madam Speaker: Order. Let me put the honourable gentleman straight. The Prime Minister has no ministerial responsibility whatever for any funding of his party ... Order. If the honourable gentleman is talking about troops, that is an entirely different matter. Let me make it clear, in case any honourable member wishes to ask the same question later, that the Prime Minister has no ministerial responsibility for money that goes to the Conservative Party. Now, put the question properly and correctly.

There was no fuss of any kind. It was regarded as a ruling that was politically reasonable and procedurally correct. There had been and were to be similar rulings on matters unconnected with party funds. The precedent of May 1996 is nearest to the Speaker's ruling of February 2002. But why was Madam Speaker Boothroyd's accepted, Mr Speaker Martin's excoriated? Is it all a question of class – a subject on which English feature writers always fall as eagerly as they would on a tray of caviare canapes?

Lady Boothroyd's origins were in the Yorkshire working class, though before becoming an MP she worked as what would now be called a political PA. Her Labour predecessor, George Thomas, came from South Wales mining stock but was a teacher by profession. Both were enormously popular, undeservedly so in the case of Speaker Thomas. Wales, I am glad to say, and – even if to a lesser degree – Yorkshire are outside the English class system. But then, so also is Scotland, where Mr Michael Martin comes from. I knew Danny McGarvey of the Boiler- makers' Union. In comparison with him, Mr Martin's Glasgow accent is wholly comprehensible; indeed, rather mellifluous.

We all know that the official classes wanted Sir George Young to be Speaker. And – though I do not want to make too much of this – Mr Martin, unlike Speakers Boothroyd and Thomas, worked with his hands, as a fitter. No previous Speaker had done that. No Prime Minister has ever done it: for Lloyd George was a solicitor, Ramsay MacDonald a teacher and journalist, and Jim Callaghan a Revenue official. Let us have some fair play for Mr Speaker Martin.

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