The Sketch: This conflict of interest makes the rest of us wince

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The Independent Online

He was sort of doing all right, the Speaker. Question time as normal. Calling MPs. Accepting the support of his people. A dozen Labour MPs came up to him to wink, and smile and pat his hand. Not many Tories, I noticed. It's tribal at the top, you see.

His position had been greatly strengthened by the weekend's media. The revelations mean that he can't go with dignity and therefore it'll be difficult for him to go at all. And the mechanics of the Commons means they have to rally round. "He may be a booby, but he's our booby," they say to themselves.

So John Spellar prefaced his question with a rousing message of support. Man on the barricade, he told us that the Speaker would not be removed by a press gallery coup (oh, if only!). He was on the radio yesterday saying it was all public school snobbery motivating the attacks. That's low; like crying "racism".

But then at the end, David Winnick stood up on a point of order and raised the hair on the back of our collective neck. The inquiry into MPs' expenses, he said, chaired by Mr Speaker himself, was due to report in July. In view of reports in the media, Winnick said, shouldn't this be brought forward.

It wasn't a question, exactly. It wasn't exactly a criticism either but it certainly had the slap of one. "I put it to you this is damaging the reputation of this House."

It takes considerable moral wallop to stand aside from the Commons solidarity, when the House is defending its own. Winnick deserves a performance bonus. He was powerful, personal and public. And it made the connection – the accusation, practically – that the Speaker will be chairing the investigation into his own practices. Mr Martin, seething underneath as he replied, voice rising slowly, said that he would stay until the House decided otherwise. He finished with the perfectly duff touch, "and that is good for the reputation of this House".

Nothing could be worse. The committee can only find that MPs are entitled to dish out air miles to their family members, and claim expenses for a house that isn't costing them anything, and bowl around London in publicly funded taxis.

It's all within the rules, no doubt, but that's the trouble with rules. They don't substitute for honour. Of the many criticisms that can be made against Parliament's first man, let's add this: he can't recognise a conflict of interest that makes the rest of us wince.

By the way: there's no social snobbery in the gallery. There's a charming line from a Dickens sketch describing MPs as embodying "the concentrated wisdom of their constituency" and I've always thought that applied to Speaker Martin. And now I suppose I'll be forced to Glasgow to apologise to it.