Simon Carr: Self-delusion runs rife as the House 'rallies round'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In an unprecedented rebuff to the power of The Independent Sketch, parliament yesterday confirmed Michael Martin as the Speaker of the House of Commons.

In tumultuous scenes, the peaceful but noisy demonstration staged support for the Glaswegian office holder who has come to hold a symbolic value for Parliament's care of and concern for the underdog.

You need a strong stomach to watch the House "rallying round" but yesterday the experience was unusually nauseating. Everyone was there. The new Parliament. Young hopefuls, old faithfuls. Some new faces, some missing. Ave atque vale Nick St Aubyn. Hello again Henry Bellingham (whose ancestor assassinated prime minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby all those years ago ­ maybe Henry is going for the double).

It was a picture of Britain that only the most nostalgic among us are capable of recognising. Overwhelmingly white, male, middle-aged, and ruled by an absent public schoolboy, Tony Blair (he was away with the soldiers).

There we were. Between the raked benches Tam Dalyell, the new father of the House, swung himself in on two crutches. He sat down in the most powerful seat of the Commons (the chief clerk's), handed his National Health supports to Crutch Bearer in Waiting (Ian McCartney) and announced he was required by standing order 1a to ascertain whether the speaker was willing to be chosen again.

There had been a moment late last year when Mr Dalyell (posh Scotch pachyderm) had suggested that were the house to want an election for a new speaker, he would not deny them the chance. Only a very old Etonian such as Mr Dalyell could think such an unthinkable thought.

At that time, an impartial inventory of the Speaker's qualities included the facts that he possessed the oratorical ability of a platform announcer, the crowd control of Joyce Grenfell and the parliamentary presence of a guinea pig. He couldn't speak, couldn't keep order, couldn't operate without the chief clerk's advice, couldn't conceal his preference for the Labour benches, couldn't suppress eruptions of paranoia that the opposition benches were trying to tell him how to do his job.

Truth to tell, little has changed since those days, but the house is a sentimental monster, and its mood had swung powerfully behind the old coot.

In willed ignorance of the Speaker's qualities, members on all sides paid tribute to his fairness, his impartiality, his amiability. They expressed their certainty that he would help backbenchers scrutinise the executive (a practice consisting of inconspicuous MPs telling the Prime Minister they want to have his baby).

Sir George Young ­ the only Englishman other than William Hague to contribute to the eight-speech session ­ spoke both gracefully and amusingly, perhaps to remind us in the most elliptical way what an immeasurably superior job he would have made of the office himself.

Robin Cook, freshly demoted to Leader of the House, was getting to grips with his new position and made a speech that was dull but also self-serving where it wasn't insincere. Family friendly policies were going to be, he was certain, the Speaker's great contribution to parliamentary life.

David Trimble deftly made the point that the modernisation reform always ended up making the life of government easier. Which wasn't the point of reform.

Other senior figures agreed Mr Martin would help defend their august institution against an arrogant and overweening executive power (the Sketch). They assured each other his poor reception from the press was the result of his barring the lobby from the House of Commons terrace. And they were sure he would resist the marginalisation of the Commons. Indeed, restore our glorious mother of parliaments, to the centre of national life.

The capacity for self-delusion is big on Broadway, bigger in Broadmoor, but biggest by far in the Palace of Westminster.