There was always going to be the temptation, after the non-stop dramas and humiliations of recent days, for MPs to believe that Parliament was already on a fast track to sensible reform – as though the early exit of Speaker Martin was the solution rather than a prelude to the necessary culture change. How mired at least the occupants of the government benches remain in old thinking, however, was immediately apparent yesterday.
It may seem unjust to pick on the Prime Minister. Gordon Brown has had a truly horrible few weeks. But in objecting, in an interview yesterday, that the election demanded by the Opposition would precipitate "chaos" revealed a lot about Mr Brown's state of mind – as such seemingly off-the-cuff ripostes have a habit of doing.
To him, perhaps, the consequences of calling an election might seem to threaten chaos, what with the ill-feeling towards MPs around the country, the likelihood of candidate de-selections and the mushrooming of independents, not to mention all that hazardous speaking on the stump. To almost anyone else, though, chaos is not the word that comes to mind when contemplating the next general election. Even to suggest that the one could lead to the other demeans the voting public. David Cameron was right to seize on this point at Prime Minister's Questions. His instincts were, as they often are, pitch-perfect in a way that Mr Brown's so often are not.
Right now might indeed not be the ideal time for an election. The mood is ugly; a sense of proportion has been lost. The autumn would be preferable. But for the Prime Minister to hazard at chaos suggests panic and confusion – he is, after all, supposed to be in charge. And if, as he tried to spin his reply to Mr Cameron, the chaos he had in mind was a Conservative victory, then he was wrong again. An election is the expression of the voters' will. It is quite improper for any Prime Minister – outgoing, incoming or incumbent – to question that.
These are febrile times, with politics in general, and the Commons in particular, seemingly trapped between past and future. While Mr Brown's chaos theory reflects fear of what lies ahead, the list of favourites to succeed the Speaker reflects the opposite: fear of revisiting the past and its mistakes. It is understandable that MPs and pundits should be looking beyond yes-men and women in their quest to replace Michael Martin. The nostalgia for Betty, now Baroness, Boothroyd is inescapable. For all the novelty she brought to that venerable chair, she came to typify the office at its best.
Yet there is a downside to seeking out mavericks and big characters, however keen the desire for a new start. Elevate any one of the following – John Bercow, Sir Menzies Campbell, Vince Cable, Frank Field, Richard Taylor, Ann Widdecombe – to be Speaker, and the benches, front or back, would be diminished. These individuals stand out because they speak straight and act according to their own lights. They should remain free to do so.
Should MPs not be looking further than these "obvious" candidates? How about, say, giving Charles Kennedy an outlet for his currently underused political gifts? But there may be an argument, too, for electing an interim Speaker to serve until the next election, both because that election – even at its furthest – is not far away, and because the complexion of the new Parliament is likely to be very different. It is too soon to hail the new era. This is a time of transition, and MPs have a lot of learning still to do.Reuse content