The New Statesman Profile - Michael Martin

A teetotaller who opposes abortion and a lower age of gay consent, this Glaswegian Speaker hates the

The official day in parliament begins with a twirly cameo. A policeman clicks his heels, bellows a two-toned "Speee-kah!" and up goes the cry: "Hats off, strangers." In the Central Lobby, designed by Sir Charles Barry, bystanders watch as a small, robed retinue, including a mace-bearer, a chaplain and high-chinned train-bearers, marches slowly towards the House of Commons.

Blakeys click on the flagstones. Spines stiffen and tingle. The Speaker's Procession! Hats off, indeed.

Yet there in the middle of it all, like a dodgy despatch rider who has somehow got caught up in a diplomatic motorcade, is Mr Speaker himself: Michael "Gorbals Mick" Martin, a gormless grin on his face as he winks at the crowd.

If Michael Martin thinks it a joke, he is not alone. An increasing number of MPs and political commentators regard this Speaker as - well, to quote just a few recent descriptions - a "bungler", "todger", "drongo" and "fool". He is "an embarrassment", according to Peter Riddell of the Times. Others think him a "dobbin" and a "duffer". He is not just a joke, he is a weak joke. A bad joke.

His recent appointment of a spin-doctor was not so much overdue as eye-wipingly laughable. Calling for a PR smoothie at this stage is like Nelson, at Trafalgar, pressing Hardy for the phone number of a good oculist. The reputation of Speaker Martin is almost irretrievable and the Speakership itself is near crisis.

It was never going to be easy succeeding Betty Boothroyd. Speaker Boothroyd was a glam old hoofer who knew just how high to kick her heels. Sadly, Speaker Martin has done worse than expected.

His election in October 2000 was marked not only by a betting scandal (some of his Scottish colleagues legged it down to the bookie's before the voting), but by his startling lack of cross-party support. It is one of the better customs of the House that an incoming Speaker be proposed or seconded by someone from the other side.

Of the numerous candidates for election, Martin gave easily the worst speech. When you consider that the field also included the Tory Sir Patrick Cormack and the Liberal Democrat Alan Beith, that is some feat. The best speech was given by Gwyneth Dunwoody. What a pity she was not elected.

Martin has been accused of matey bias towards his old chums on the Labour back benches, to whom he chats like an idle barmaid while he is supposed to be chairing debates. He has foregone the traditional remoteness of Speakers, continuing to visit the tearoom. This may be blokeish, but it is no way to embroider the majesty of his stature. The less a Speaker sees of MPs socially, the less likely his pronouncements will be tainted by favouritism.

His worst mistakes? He has expressed support for government policy (a real no-no), has become embroiled in the untidy dismissal of the standards commissioner, and has repeatedly bungled pronouncements from the chair. When he reads a statement, he practically has to follow the words with his finger. Early this month, he waded further into the mire by trying to stop the leader of the opposition going about his business at Prime Minister's Questions. The issue at hand was financial support for Labour from the unions. Given that Martin has received thousands of pounds from the unions in his time, it was, to say the least, an unfortunate intervention.

A Speaker's powers are limited. He can steer debates by calling certain MPs, or ignoring them (in another departure from practice, Martin often overlooks the Father of the House, Tam Dalyell). A Speaker has a few opportunities to summon ministers to the House, but Martin has not always taken them. His stewardship of the daily Question Time has been lax.

What the Speaker really has the chance to do is to build up the muscle tissue of parliament by imposing a rigorous personality on the chamber of the Commons. If the executive can be made to fear the Speaker, maybe it can be made to behave better towards the electorate. In this area, Martin has scored "nul points". Ministers fear him no more than they might a shih tzu dog. Charles Clarke, the chairman of the Labour Party, is now said to be briefing against him.

No Speaker in memory has received such disagreeable press. I should admit a certain culpability here, having nicknamed him "Gorbals Mick" in the Daily Mail's parliamentary sketch. Cheap shot, I know, but with that thick accent and the scarlet face ("red and throbbing like a haemorrhoid", according to Simon Carr of the Independent) he is the cartoon Glaswegian. Parliamentary sketches are verbal cartoons.

If Martin occasionally feels got at, it is a sensation that his father must have known. Michael Martin Sr, a merchant navy stoker, was torpedoed five times in the war. His marriage proved less resilient, and young Michael's parents separated. The boy who would one day occupy the Speaker's Apartment was reared in a crowded Glasgow tenement, dodging through the washing-lines, and coming home to spuds and dripping for high tea. It was a poor life but, he has recalled, a happy one.

As an apprentice sheet-metal worker, he became active in the unions. By the time he entered parliament in 1979 as the member for Glasgow Springburn, with a majority of 14,000, he was a streetwise member of the Scottish Labour Party. He was briefly parliamentary private secretary to Denis Healey and he sat on a handful of committees. In 1987, at the age of 42, he passed his first O-level - in Italian, which he speaks with at least as much flair as he does the English language. He is now aged 56, although he looks 65.

He is anti-abortion, pro-tobacco and dubious about contraception for the under-16s. There is something dour about his beliefs: in 1995, he voted against the extension of pub licensing hours and, in 1992, he was one of six Labour MPs to vote against the liberalisation of the age of gay consent. He is also seen - and this may explain his shortage of supporters in the media - as the man responsible for ejecting journalists from the House of Commons terrace. This professed teetotaller has no thirst for hacks with expense accounts.

Peter Snape, the former Labour MP, dwelt on Martin's poor background when he proposed him as Speaker. "Going to work as he did then, clad in a second-hand boiler suit and a pair of boots, gives him a deep knowledge of some of the problems facing many of our electors and many people in the United Kingdom," said Snape. The trouble is, a Speaker has little to do with the electorate; his job is limited to Westminster. Martin's candidacy was seconded by the moderniser Ann Keen. The following month, Keen's sister, Sylvia Heal, was made a deputy Speaker.

Keen's speech praised Martin's way with staff. "They know he respects them," said Keen. "He listens to them and they have confidence in him." Yet, a few months later, he would sack one of his secretaries, Charlotte Every, allegedly because he found her "too posh". Every was the model of discretion, but I think I may have had a glimpse of what she had to put up with. After I started lampooning the old booby, I heard, via impeccably stockinged sources, that I should not take for granted the continuation of my Palace of Westminster pass. There was talk of my editor being summoned to SW1 to account for himself. Was the Speaker - who has power over security passes - trying to censor me?

Despite his reluctance to surround himself with the daughters of privilege, Martin is more than happy to rely on his Commons clerk, the bewigged Sir William McKay. McKay, a product of Trinity Academy in Leith, sits directly in front of Martin in the chamber, and is there to whisper urgent advice when - as often happens - the Speaker needs emergency repairs.

Another person who helps him through the daily ordeal of Points of Order is the Speaker's secretary, Sir Nicolas Bevan (Westminster and Corpus Christi, Oxford), who stands to his left and murmurs almost continuous assistance. To see Bevan and McKay at work is to watch two Formula One mechanics trying to keep a Trabant on the road.

Such is the fear of being ignored by the chair during debates that it is almost unheard-of for an MP to go on the record with criticism of the Speaker. One exception is the Tory frontbencher John Bercow, who argues that it is possible to respect the office of Speaker without necessarily esteeming its occupant.

Should "Gorbals" go? Yes, though it would rob us sketchwriters of a wonderful source of material. Will he go? Probably not for a few more years. There is no mechanism for getting rid of him this side of the next general election.

Martin's cheerleaders, among them the normally more discriminating Michael White of the Guardian, complain that the nickname "Gorbals Mick" is inaccurate - Martin was reared not in the Gorbals area itself, but nearby. This is rather like complaining that a Steve Bell drawing is imprecise, or that a Rory Bremner skit is not entirely factual. The broader matter of Martin's shortcomings is seldom addressed by his adherents.

Good liberals may want to defend Martin because they suspect he is somehow the victim of class warfare. That is little better than to patronise the man. Unless we are to have affirmative action for slow-witted Glaswegians, meritocracy must work both ways. It grants privileges neither to toffs nor to sons of toil. It operates on the basis of ability, and that is something Michael Martin seems singularly to lack.