On 9 February, the Times ran a piece showing how much new Labour's high command hates the Speaker, Mick Martin. All lobby hacks know what MPs think of Martin because they are told "on lobby terms" every day of the week. Privately, the Blair-appointed Labour Party chairman, Charles Clarke, thinks that Martin is a complete bloody idiot or, as Andrew Pierce told us in the Times, "an embarrassment" who has "lost credibility".
The problem for the thirsty Clarke is that my sparring partner on Sunday Service isn't a "lobby" member, so he can tell us the truth about what MPs are telling "friends".
No 10 was obviously furious that Clarke had been telling people what he thought about Martin, because it looked as if it was out to remove the Speaker. Not for the first time, Clarke was told to backtrack, and so fired off a "stiff" letter to the Times completely denying that he had called Martin an idiot. His letter would have had more credibility if he had sent it straight away instead of a day later. The paper obviously did not think much of it because it didn't even bother to print it. We were left with the bizarre situation of reading about Clarke's letter to the Times in the Guardian and the Telegraph.
They told us that Clarke insisted Pierce was wrong on all counts. I know whom I believe. When the previous Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, delayed Gordon Brown's first Budget because of an alleged leak to the FT, he was rightly furious; after all she did nothing when the whole of Ken Clarke's Budget was given to the Mirror. Brown knew, however, that it is best for ministers to keep their feelings about the Speaker to themselves, as the Speaker can make life very difficult for you - forcing you to appear at the despatch box, for one thing. Michael Martin may be crap, but he will probably remain Speaker for a good while longer.