Is Nick Clegg right to back the Speaker?

by Stephen Tall on February 25, 2008

The House of Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, has found himself in the full glare of unwelcome publicity this weekend, following allegations that he has misused his Parliamentary allowances:

In the past two weeks it has emerged that some black cab trips made by Mr Martin’s wife to buy food were claimed on expenses, that allowances were claimed for a home he owns outright in Scotland, and that he used air miles earned on official business to buy first-class tickets for some relatives to fly to London over the New Year.”

As none of this is outside the rules it might not matter – but for the fact that Mr Martin is leading an inquiry intended to make clearer and more transparent what MPs can and cannot claim as expenses.

Now the Lib Dems’ treasury spokesman in the House of Lords, Matthew Oakeshott, is piling on the pressure, tabling a Parliamentary question asking for the details of Mr Martin’s employment – using taxpayers’ money – of Mike Gannett from PR firm Luther Pendragon as his personal media spokesperson.

So far, senior politicians have lined up behind the Speaker, with Nick Clegg today arguing there has been “a bit of a witch hunt” against Mr Martin. James Forsyth over at The Spectator’s Coffee House blog questions the wisdom of this approach, arguing the Lib Dems’ USP should be their anti-establishment spikiness. He also suggests some tactical reasons for quizzing the Speaker’s fitness for office just now:

it is to Clegg and the Lib Dem’s advantage to be seen to be crossing the Speaker right now as their big battle at the moment is to get their ‘in or out’ referendum amendment down; the Commons Clerks are reluctant to allow it to be tabled as they don’t see it as relevant to the Lisbon Treaty bill. But if the Lib Dems were to be denied after publicly criticising Martin, they would be able to kick up an almighty fuss which would disguise their own deep divisions over the issue.”

So, what should be Nick Clegg’s approach: should he be calling for the Speaker’s head pending an independent inquiry; or is he right to dismiss the critics of the Speaker?