Page last updated at 17:10 GMT, Tuesday, 19 May 2009 18:10 UK

Farewell then, Speaker Martin

By Sean Curran
Parliamentary correspondent

Michael Martin and wife Mary in 2000
Michael Martin and wife Mary faced merciless criticism in the press

I feel like the father in that propaganda poster from the First World War.

You know the one. A shame faced man sits staring into the distance as his children ask, "Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?"

When my children ask, "Daddy where were you when Speaker Martin resigned?" I shall have to reply, "Waiting to take my seat in the House of Commons press gallery along with dozens of other political journalists".

Michael Martin has never been what you'd call a "fan" of the media.

And today he wasn't in the mood to hang about.

It took him less than ten seconds to announce he was standing down and ending his controversial tenure as Speaker of the House of Commons.

Rough ride

During the course of a chaotic day of voting in October 2000 Michael Martin emerged as the frontrunner in the race to succeed Betty Boothroyd.

A record 12 candidates stood for the post. The elections took almost seven hours.

Along with most of his rivals Mr Martin described himself as an impartial moderniser.

There were early signs he was in for a rough ride.

After a series of complex votes, Mr Martin was the only candidate left for the post of Speaker.

Many at Westminster say Michael Martin is a kind and decent man

If all had gone according to plan, and tradition, at this point all the members of the Commons would have rallied behind him.

What actually happened was that some Conservatives forced a vote and then voted against Mr Martin.

He got the job after winning the division by 370 votes to 8. Some Conservatives voted for him but most did not. Like most Speakers, it took Mr Martin some time to find his sea legs.

Shaky start

At the start he seemed to have trouble remembering MPs' names - and some Conservatives muttered that he didn't give them a fair hearing.

Now, none of this is unusual.

It is practically a Westminster tradition that a new Speaker gets off to a shaky start.

This is all forgotten once they have settled into the job.

The muttering ends and no one can recall a time when they were anything less than a magisterial presence.

Buckled shoes

When Michael Martin was elected he broke with tradition.

For a start he was the first Roman Catholic Speaker since the Reformation.

He tried a little low key modernising when he ditched the knee breeches and silk stockings worn by his predecessors in favour of black flannel trousers.

And he decided to wear his own shoes rather than buckled court shoes (interestingly he favours black monk shoes which have a buckle fastening).

Betty Boothroyd had already dispensed with the full-bottomed wig that used to come with the job.

Speaker Michael Martin

There were many days when he looked like the lonely master of a crowded house

As for the muttering, well, that never stopped.

The Parliamentary sketch writers used their newspaper columns to highlight Speaker Martin's failings.

And some of the journalists were merciless in their criticism.

There were times when Michael Martin did not help his own cause.

Over the past nine years, there have been rows with MPs and mistakes and mishaps.

There have been damaging newspaper headlines about Mr Martin's allowances.

And of course the long-running battle over the Freedom of Information laws.

In spite of this MPs, with a few high profile media friendly exceptions, did not want to rock the boat and unseat the man they had chosen to be the public representative of Parliament.

Prickly attitude

The mood began to change following the Damian Green affair.

MPs on all sides were unhappy with and unimpressed by the way Michael Martin handled the arrest of the Conservative immigration spokesman and police raid on his parliamentary office.

We caught of a glimpse of the Speaker's thin skin and prickly attitude.

Those characteristics were revealed again last week when Mr Martin clashed, from the Chair, with the MPs Kate Hoey and Norman Baker.

Many at Westminster say Michael Martin is a kind and decent man.

And we have seen those qualities too.

Last year, during baying exchanges about the death of Baby P, the Speaker appeared to be the only person in the Commons who realised how the bitter and angry scenes would look and sound to the outside world.

A few days before her death in 2005, the Liberal Democrat MP, Patsy Calton, entered the Commons chamber for the last time.

Mrs Calton, who was being treated for breast cancer had just held her Cheadle seat at the general election.

She affirmed her allegiance from a wheelchair.

After she had signed the register, Michael Martin broke with tradition and left the Speaker's Chair.

He shook Mrs Calton's hand, said "welcome home Patsy," and kissed her cheek.

Now his uneasy relationship with the House of Commons is coming to an end.

In spite of his long experience, Michael Martin, often seemed to lack confidence.

There were many days when he looked like the lonely master of a crowded house.



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