19 May 2009

Out of the Frying Pan

Since I came to this House 30 years ago, I have always felt that the House is at its best when it is united. In order that unity can be maintained, I have decided that I will relinquish the office of Speaker on Sunday 21 June. This will allow the House to proceed to elect a new Speaker on Monday 22 June. That is all I have to say on this matter.

And with those terse words, one can of worms was placed in the bin, to be replaced with two more.

The first is who will replace him as Speaker - and who would want to. We have, at this stage, only one declared candidate, and so he is, by default, the frontrunner: Sir Alan Beith, LibDem MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed. He is the bookies' second favourite, at 5/1. The favourite is Sir George Young, at 4/1. Vince Cable, David Davis and anne Widdecombe have all ruled themselves out. Mutterings from the Labour benches point towards Tory MP John Bercow. Mutterings from the Tory benches point towards Labour MP Frank Field. At this stage, it's far too early to say who will emerge.

The second is who will replace him as MP for Glasgow North East, with his departure from the Commons all but certain. Strictly speaking, there is no incumbent party, with the Speaker standing for re-election as an apartisan candidate, but had that not been the case, this would ordinarily be seen as a Labour fortress. Nevertheless, we have a little more knowledge about party strengths merely on the basis that, as you'd expect, the SNP haven't really been all that impressed by the convention that the Speaker isn't challenged. If you make the shaky assumption that all the people who voted for Michael Martin would have voted Labour, and that all the people who would have voted Labour voted for Michael Martin - and neither of those assumptions hold much water but we have to start from somewhere - the SNP would require a swing of 18% to win a By-Election: more than was required (and far more than was acheived) in Glenrothes, but less than what was needed and attained next to this seat in Glasgow East. On that basis, we can't yet read the tea leaves, and I don't yet envisage the European Elections shedding any light on how the By-Election would progress. I shall simply say that for the SNP, a victory would be best characterised as it was in Glasgow East - improbable but not impossible - while for Labour, victory is nothing short of an absolute must.

There's then the question of the candidacies. Conventional wisdom used to have it that Paul Martin was a shoo-in for the Labour nomination but hereditity might not go down overly well right now but combined with Margaret Curran's intention to fight Glasgow East again, it might provide a vacancy for Steven Purcell at Holyrood (might that make Frank McAveety a possible candidate?). The SNP have a PPC - Grant Thoms, the Tartan Hero - but as we know from Glasgow East, PPCs for the General Election don't necessarily fight a By-Election. However, he's in place, he's on the Party's NEC, he's a strong campaigner so you would see him as a frontrunner. All the same, these are unusual times, and the assumptions we would normally make can be called into question very easily indeed. All bets are very much off.

So, Michael Martin's exit creates two vacancies, and two elections: one winner will emerge from the benches of the House of Commons; the other winner will take a seat on them. But at this stage, we can't even say for sure who will be on either ballot paper, much less who will emerge on top.

We await with bated breath.


Richard Shields said...

Its interesting that as an aside you think Steven Purcell may end up in Holyrood. I am generally very impressed with him (And i wouldnt vote Labour with a gun to my head) If i were a Labour supporter I would want to see him at Westminster, as I see him being a potential Labour leader in either parliament. Is it thought more likely he will end up in Holyrood?

Will said...

Richard, it's widely held that Purcell's ambition does not stop at being an MSP, but at being Leader of the Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament and ultimately First Minister. He's also trying to put himself on a left-wing footing pay seeking a 'living wage' for Council workers, which I imagine would be far more likely to play well in a campaign for Scottish Labour than for UK Labour.

To be honest, given the way both Michael Martin and Gordon Brown have been vilified, my guess is that the most Purcell could hope for is a low-level Cabinet position which doesn't get much attention in the Westminster village. Whether or not Purcell himself has made that calculation is another matter, but he seems to be stking out Bute House rather than Downing Street.