The favourite for Speaker is no friend of the press

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The Independent Online

The bookmakers' favourite for tomorrow's Speakership election is Mr Michael Martin, the Labour member for Glasgow Springburn. He has been described as a former sheet-metal worker and union official, a bagpipe player and a teetotaller.

The bookmakers' favourite for tomorrow's Speakership election is Mr Michael Martin, the Labour member for Glasgow Springburn. He has been described as a former sheet-metal worker and union official, a bagpipe player and a teetotaller.

All this is correct. What is not correct is that he is Deputy Speaker, as several of my colleagues have asserted. He is a Deputy Speaker and Deputy Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means. The chairman of that committee is Sir Alan Haselhurst, also a Deputy Speaker. The result is that the Deputy Speaker is not Mr Martin but Sir Alan. The latter started as favourite to succeed Miss Betty Boothroyd. But he has now slipped in the betting, behind Sir George Young.

What no one has yet seen fit to mention about Mr Martin is that he is a dedicated opponent of the rights and privileges of the press in the House of Commons. It may be that this silence can be attributed to a prudent - some might say a cowardly - wish not to offend someone who will, if elected, be able to exercise much influence on domestic arrangements at the Palace of Westminster. I prefer to put it down to a collective loss of memory.

Before 1992 he had been a member of the Services Committee, which controls such arrangements. Afterwards he continued as a member of the Finance and Services Committee and became Chairman of the Administration Committee. In this nest of overlapping bureaucracies, Mr Martin saw it as his task to make life as difficult as possible for parliamentary journalists. He proposed, for example, that the accommodation should be diminished when it already resembled Oxford Circus station in the rush hour.

Annie's Bar - the bar open only to MPs, former MPs, lobby correspondents and certain gallery correspondents - was shifted to inconvenient and windowless premises, with the consequence that it is now but a shadow of its former convivial self (though it is certainly arguable that the bar reached the peak of its influence after 1976, when the government's deputy whip, the still mysteriously unhonoured Walter Harrison, nightly kept James Callaghan afloat).

Most inconveniently of all, it was Mr Martin who was responsible for depriving journalists of the privilege of going on to the Terrace in the summer. This had been inaugurated by Robert Maxwell when he had occupied a similar position to Mr Martin's in the late 1960s. Maxwell also re-established the already mentioned Annie's Bar. Not everything the old crook did was bad. He did, admittedly, sell off the Commons' fine wines and restock the cellar with the products of a drink-and-hotels conglomerate with which he had done a deal. But even this piece of skulduggery had its bright side, for Maxwell sold 1959 and 1961 vintage claret (the labels having been steamed off) in the Commons bars at half-a-crown or 12.5p a glass.

This was in 1970 or just before. In the succeeding 20 years it was not only the price of wine that went up but also the dislike in which journalists were held. This development was particularly pronounced among the Conservatives after the fall of Margaret Thatcher and her succession by John Major. It reached its height with the supposed failure of Mr Major's "Back to Basics" campaign. I write "supposed" because the campaign, as originally launched by Mr Major, had nothing at all to do with sex. Nevertheless newspapers seemed able to pick off erring ministers virtually at will.

Accordingly the hatred of the press came chiefly from the Conservative side. Labour people thought they could control the journalists, as to some extent they still think. Six years later the terms of trade have changed. But Mr Blair's ministers know they cannot blame the papers entirely, as Mr Major's ministers did. The Cabinet now resembles nothing so much as the sixth form at St Trinian's. Even so, Mr Martin is a suitably anti-press candidate for both sides. Sir George is not like this at all. Indeed, both when he was a minister and when he was not, he was an adornment of Annie's Bar, where, no doubt because of his bicycling activities, he was just as likely to be clutching a pint of orange squash as of Federation bitter. Sir George was a junior minister - twice, first dismissed and then restored - under Lady Thatcher. He was both a junior and a cabinet minister under Mr Major. Alas, his last post was as Secretary of State for Transport. He is therefore blamed, not entirely fairly (most of the detailed work having already been done by others), for privatising the railways. This is not the most propitious moment at which to be held responsible for rail privatisation. Sir George may suffer accordingly.

It is clearly impossible to deal with the other candidates at length. Indeed, it is a sad commentary on the good sense of the present House that there should still be a total of 13 of them. The ballot sensibly proposed by Mr Tony Benn may or may not be accepted by Sir Edward Heath, who as Father of the House is in charge of the election. But 13 is too many whatever the method of balloting. I am reminded of what Harold Macmillan said to Iain Macleod when, at the height of the Profumo affair, it was rumoured that no fewer than eight High Court judges had participated in an orgy. "One," he said, "perhaps, two conceivably. But eight - I just can't believe it." Likewise with the candidates for Speaker. They should have possessed the intelligence to reduce their number, not necessarily to two, but to a manageable three or four.

The former Speaker Lord Weatherill said on Newsnight that there were so many of them because they all wanted to be media stars, as they had not in his day. In this item the woman reporter informed us that the Speaker wore 16th-century clothes, which suggests to me that she should quickly visit the BBC's costume department. Lord Weatherill's explanation was also vulnerable, because the first media star was his predecessor George Thomas (a frightful Thatcher creep). He became a star through radio.

There remains the question of alternation between the parties. In a letter to the Times Mr Gerald Kaufman has trenchantly denied that any such convention exists. Certainly there has been alternation only since the election in 1965 of Dr Horace King, who with many others believed that dry white wine was a non-alcoholic beverage. And Miss Boothroyd won in 1992 because the Tories could not decide between Mr Peter Brooke and Sir Giles Shaw. This does not prove that alternation should necessarily be rejected.

As Lord Rosebery wrote to Queen Victoria about the nomination of W Court Gully, "who knows nothing and whom nobody knows" but who turned out to be not a bad Speaker: "There is much exaggeration about the attainments requisite for a Speaker. All Speakers are highly successful, all Speakers are deeply regretted and are generally announced to be irreplaceable. But a Speaker is soon found, and found, almost invariably, among the mediocrities of the House."

If the mediocrity who is chosen tomorrow turns out to be Mr Martin, the ladies and gentlemen of the press had better watch out, if his form, which is as long as your arm, is anything to go by. If I were part of the electorate (which thank the Lord I'm not, Sir), my vote would go to the lugubrious baronet instead.

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