Simon Carr: The Speaker spoke – and everything went wrong

Sketch: If he hangs on too tightly he'll take a lot of parliamentary fabric with him when he goes

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Personally, I found it electrifying. There was a thick, heavy atmosphere in the House. Turbid. Murky. All five stages of the grieving process were in evidence plus a general wash of humiliated authority.

Home Office questions had finished. In the fraught silence, the Speaker began his much-anticipated statement. The House had suddenly filled. Gordon Brown was there. Clegg was in. No Cameron. The Speaker spoke, and everything started to go wrong.

He apologised to the nation "to the extent" that he had "contributed to the situation". Other than that, it was mainly the MPs' fault. He then said he was going to assemble the interested parties in a way no one else had been able to do. Gordon's expression twisted. He, after all, is the consensus builder. He has the solutions!

The Speaker went on to describe the discussions he was going to have and Gordon's expression deepened. He talked about how well he'd got on with Sir Christopher Kelly. I'll be amazed if Michael Martin survives.

Towards the end of the statement it became apparent that nothing was going to actually happen. The Speaker sat down. When I looked again, Gordon was gone (how does he do that?). Then Gordon Prentice's thin, scything voice cut through with an awful clarity. It was the sort of voice that changes a crowd. You can see how Robespierre happened. "A motion of no confidence in you, sir," (that "sir" hit home) "will appear on the order paper tomorrow..."

To say such a thing, in such a cool voice. It was a direct shaft aimed at the heart of the Commons icon. He meant it to be fatal.

But you can't kill politicians; they have to commit suicide. And this Michael Martin obligingly proceeded to do. He told us that the motion wasn't a motion it was an Early Day Motion and the house couldn't vote on a motion unless it was a substantive motion.

The old bruiser has defended himself before in many questionable ways. But this was a defence no one could understand.

Directly, in another sizzling intervention, Richard Bacon at the other end of the chamber called out in a voice that fully expected to be heard: "It IS a substantive motion!" And when the Speaker repeated his point Bacon called out again with even greater assertion and self-possession: "The deputy leader of the House has said it IS a substantive motion!" Chris Bryant standing next to Mr Bacon must have muttered something. It was like standing next to a mic you didn't realise was open and hearing your intimate thoughts being broadcast to Wembley Stadium.

It was the decent ones who did the most damage. Patrick Cormack. David Heath. David Winnick. This latter stood up to say it would save the reputation of the House if he were to resign. Others, many others, said equally damaging things.

But it was David Davis who asked the lethal question. He asked the Speaker how the motion could be made a "substantive".

And the Speaker said: "Let me ask the Clerk." The House looked on, watching the tutorial taking place. There was quietness. Thirty seconds passed as the Clerk gave the Speaker a one-two-three on one of the most basic rules of procedure.

So, there we all saw at length, in plain view, on national television, a Speaker so bereft of speakerly qualities unable even to say how a motion gets on the order paper.

His fate is now in Harriet Harman's hands. It is the Leader of the House's decision to put the motion into play. If debated, it would attract 100 votes of no confidence. He knows that and would resign, surely, before the debate took place. If he hangs on too tightly he'll take a lot of parliamentary fabric with him when he goes.

But does Harriet, Tribune of the People, have it in her to do the decent, daring thing? We'll know this week.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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