Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

By chance, Mr Speaker had invited me to a party on Tuesday evening. I had decided, rude though it would have been, to attend, but to tell him to his face that he should go. But by the time I got there, he had. All emotions went into reverse. The reception was in aid of St Margaret's, Westminster, the parish church of Parliament, which needs £2 million.

Showing none of the chippy defensiveness which has made him so unpopular, Michael Martin gave a charming little talk about how, despite being a Scottish Roman Catholic, he had been made to feel at home at St Margaret's when he first arrived 30 years ago. Even pre-Vatican II, he said, his mother had always encouraged him to seek out the Glasgow boys' clubs organised by Protestant churches. It seemed very ecumenical, 'but later I realised she just didn't want all five of us in the kitchen'. He said the Speaker's Art Fund would contribute £75,000 for the appeal. Then he returned to the Chamber to tell Hon. Members why they no longer claim for gardeners, grooms, personal trainers, chauffeurs and the rest. Some people are saying that the departure of the Speaker is a side-show. I don't agree. The fact that this rather dear, but utterly useless man ever got the post was a symptom of the great problem.

The fact that he can be forced out is the symptom of a great change.

Mr Martin's fate confirms this column's theory that nothing but trouble results when the holder of an ancient office tries to scale down the costume. They do so in the vain (in both senses of the word) idea that they will command greater respect if they can be seen 'for themselves', rather than as pompous and remote figures in silly outfits.

In fact, the Speaker, like judges, is much safer half-hidden under wigs: the office predominates over the man. I predict that Mr Martin's replacement - almost whoever he or she is - will overmodernise the outfit and undermodernise the nature of the office.

It has proved impossible to defend the claim that 'the vast majority' of MPs are guiltless of any wrongdoing in the expenses scandal.

But given that the rules are impossible to fulfil - how can house maintenance for a family be 'wholly' carried out for the fulfilment of parliamentary duties? - MPs who stuck to reasonable house or garden maintenance and avoided anything which could be considered a capital cost surely did nothing wrong. David Heathcoat-Amory, who is notoriously careful about public money, charged for manure. Surely that is no worse than charging for plain crockery: it is just more memorable. Barbara Follett presumably did need her chimneys cleaned (cost £384), and it is no more heinous to charge for that than for vacuum-cleaning (her astonishing claim for bodyguards is something else). As for poor Oliver Letwin, it seems to be universally believed that we paid to repair his tennis court. Not so; we paid to mend his water pipe, a normal piece of maintenance. The only reason the terrible phrase 'tennis court' featured was that his builder's receipt identified the work as having taken place near it.

The second-home scandal arose from the mistaken idea that MPs need to live in their constituencies. In the early Eighties, my friend Henry Keswick, the taipan of Jardines, was interviewed for a safe Conservative seat in Wiltshire. …

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