The word is that at 6.30pm on Monday evening, at the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, most members present were supportive of Michael Martin. It was not Kate Hoey or the Daily Mail which did for him; it was his own lamentably tone deaf performance on Tuesday, forestalling any discussion of his position with an unwon arrogance.
To that extent, it’s hard to feel sympathy for the soon-to-be-erstwhile Speaker: he bears much of the responsibility for his own fall. It is for sure a great shame, given his dedication to and emergence from the Labour movement, but not entirely the fault of the snobs at the Mail (whose sketchwriter Quentin Letts gave him the classist and possibly racist nickname ‘Gorbals Mick’). The wrangling to secure his successor has already begun, and MPs will trip over themselves to emphasise their reformist credentials. This will be an interesting sideshow, but a sideshow it will remain.
The main party leaders probably wish otherwise: each has in his own way failed to develop an appropriate political response to the mess. Both Brown and Cameron are using the controversy to score points in long-running vendettas, Brown against Hazel Blears and Cameron against the older ‘bed-blocking’ Tory MPs who have until now seemed immovable both in terms of giving up their seat and the modernising project. Yet, when Brown refuses to censure more favoured ministers like Geoff Hoon and James Purnell, or Cameron gives a pass to Francis Maude or Alan Duncan, they risk transparency of the wrong kind entirely.
Resignations have been forced in every party: Nick Clegg, for instance, managed to thrown Lord Rennard under the bus to some fanfare. But this isn’t enough. I was with a colleague at a parking meter this week, and suggested to him that he get a receipt, since we had parked for a work meeting. The man behind us chuckled, “That won’t work – he’s not an MP.” Here is that rare thing – a political story which has become common currency. Spotted responses, like the resignation of a Speaker or the suspension of a backbench MP, cannot match this sort of furore. Something systemic must happen.
The problem for party leaders in systemic responses is that they are as likely as not to inflict self-harm. Gordon Brown in particular has long been guilty of tactical rather than strategic decisions, but every political leader is currently worrying around the edges of this problem. Tactical adjustments will not do: the strategic aim of purging this poison must be put above the day-to-day political calculations of who gains what from which mood will ultimately prove to be self-defeating.
With an election on June 4th, though, it’s hard to expect much else for now. Yet I for one did not expect Michael Martin to fall on Monday night – and that alone is reason to suggest that this unprecedented mess might still force a few hands.