Monday, 18 May 2009

An Ambush In The House of Commons

Speaker Michael Martin faced down an unprecedented motion of no confidence in the Commons, but it was a close run thing. From the pages of The Herald.

Pathologists and crime writers tell you that few victims are killed with one clean cut. Murder is a foul business and it takes multiple blows, and fierce resolve, to complete the deed.

Yesterday came close to murder in Westminster. It was politics raw in tooth and claw, an assassination attempt so bloody and electrifying that the old hands here proclaimed they had never seen its like before.

The ambush on the floor of the House had been laid for all to see. The author of the no confidence motion, Douglas Carswell, sat on the far back benches surrounded by lieutenants, biting his lopsided lip, waiting. All attended as witnesses - party leaders and backbenchers - although if voters ask, no one saw anything.

Gordon Prentice struck the first blow, after Mr Martin’s typical, stumbling apology to the nation. When he was told the motion was out of order the blade passed to Carswell. One by one they were going to stand and strike. "When will members be allowed to choose a new Speaker with the moral authority to clean up Westminster?" he asked.

Some supporters booed and the Speaker refused a debate, adopted a patronising tone he would quickly regret. "Please give me credit for having some experience in the chair," he said. During the uproar that followed he sought out the bewigged clerks, the legal officers of parliament, who defined the motion as being in "remaining orders". It was a flimsy a shield as his speech has been against assailants who were coming at him from all sides.

In most walks of life people stab you in the back, in politics they stab you in the heart. David Winnick, turning into a Labour Mr Nasty, plunged his blade into the Speaker’s ribs. "Your early retirement, Sir, would help the reputation of the House," he declared to gasps. By the Speaker’s chair Keith Simpson, a Captain Manwaring, let out a whistle of amazement because Mr Martin , he was still standing.

David Heath, Lib Dem Commons leader, dipped his hands in blood, taking his time getting there with incantation. "Those who put us into this position by resisting reform cannot be the right people to lead us out of this."

Richard Shepherd played Brutus, raising his point in sadness. "Many out there will not believe we are serious about the changes that are necessary as long as you are in the chair."

Mr Speaker hid behind the rules again so Sir Patrick Cormack, a Tory grandee, tried handing him a loaded revolver. "What is at stake is the institution of Parliament and its integrity," said Sir Patrick. He compared the crisis to the "Norway debate", and you had to have a longer memory than Sir Patrick (he was 70 today) to recall that in the dark days of 1940 it led to Neville Chamberlain being ousted as Prime Minister.

As the warning resonated around the chamber. Sir Stuart Bell rose in defence of a friend and the traditions of parliament. "There has never been in the history of our land such an attack on the Speaker of the House of Commons," he said. "This House should calm itself down, should have a period of reflection and... " The rest was drowned out by catcalls but the line held.

One of Carswell’s seconds fired a damp flintlock but to no great effect. So the Speaker lives, hoping a promise of reform will see him through the storm to these calmer times. He retreated dazed and wounded, baptized in the red wine of war. But mark, if that debate is heard, fatal blows will rain down on Michael Martin.

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