Thursday, 4 December 2008

Michael Martin Speaks

Sketch, The Herald 4th Dec 2008

So, let's say the Old Bill are at the door. "Allo, allo, can we come in and have a look around?"

How many television detective series do you have to watch before you know the answer is: "Do you have a warrant, officer?"

Apparently the Serjeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons does not watch much television. She allowed the officers of the Metropolitan Police force into the portals of Westminster Palace with just a piece of paper. "And, if you'd like to sign here ma'am, thank you very much."

That this happened in the case of Conservative MP Damian Green, whose Westminister office was raided by police last Thursday, was a matter of "regret" the contrite Speaker of the House, Mr Michael Martin, told a seething Commons yesterday. Viewed from within parliament, the invasion of Westminster by agents of the Crown is a national "scandal", not just a matter of regret.

However, on the Richter scale of parliamentary scandals that excite the public, its reverberations, although they have deep implications for our democracy, are contained by the north embankment of the Thames.

Still, the issue has generated kilowatts of anger and yesterday it was all refracted into a laser of ire focusing on an avuncular former shipyard worker whose job it is to be the protector of parliament. Mr Martin, his nervousness betrayed by a voice an octave above his normal range, stood before the Commons to give a statement on the affair.

It wasn't his fault, he said in so many more words than that. The Serjeant-at-Arms did not tell him the police did not have a warrant, the police didn't tell the Serjeant-at-Arms that a warrant could have been insisted on. Now, when Speaker Lenthall defied King Charles I he came up with better lines than that.
At the other end of the chamber Jill Pay, who always cuts a flamboyant Serjeant-at-Arms in her ceremonial frock coat, sat carefully clutching her sword, presumably lest she should fall on to it.

Her expression was hard to read, but in Mr Martin's Glasgow North East constituency they'd say "her face was tripping her".

Mr Martin displayed genuine remorse and showed flashes of frustration when the Tories dared to jeer him. "Others have been on television, I have not had that luxury," he said.

Mr Martin reminded the House that parliamentary privilege has never prevented the operation of criminal law and he cited chapter seven of Erkine May, the parliamentary bible.

David Davis, the Conservative MP who fought by-election against himself in the cause of civil liberties, flipped sceptically through the pages of the tome to check and looked unconvinced by anything Mr Martin had to say.

The same was true of most of the Conservative benches, many of whom hold the snobbish belief that Mr Martin is elevated above his station.

One by one they rose to make their point - that they regarded this as a parliamentary crisis for which they held the Speaker responsible. Former Tory leader Michael Howard, LibDem grandee Sir Menzies Campbell, veteran Labour MP David Winnick all had a go with John Reid rising to remind MPs of the principle that they remain subject to the rule of law.

Damian Green, seated immediately behind Conservative leader David Cameron, was greeted by cheers from the Tory benches as he rose to speak.

"An MP endangering national security would be a disgrace. An MP exposing embarrassing facts about Home Office policy which ministers are hiding is doing a job in the public interest."

Mr Martin said he was aware of the anger in the chamber, and there was plenty. It's difficult to imagine a situation where the headmaster is carpeted by the pupils, but this was as close as it gets.

Earlier, there had been that rap on the door. Black Rod, the Queen's bodyguard, chapped the door of the Commons, as always before the Queen's speech. Dennis Skinner, the resident maverick, responded: "Are there any Tory moles at the palace?"

That glint of the humour, like the tiaras and the dazzling jewels of the State Opening of parliament, were lost yesterday. The Speaker and the Serjeant-at-Arms were at the centre of a darker kind of political drama.

No comments:

Post a Comment