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Britain’s speaker forced to quit amid scandal

The powerful speaker of the British House of Commons resigns after a backlash over excessive expense claims by lawmakers.
Image: Michael Martin
In this image taken from television, Michael Martin announces his resignation as speaker of Britain's House of Commons to MPs at Westminster, London, on Tuesday. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The powerful speaker of the British House of Commons resigned Tuesday, bowing to a backlash over excessive expense claims by lawmakers and becoming the first speaker in three centuries to be forced out.

Though Michael Martin has not been caught up in recent revelations about lawmakers expenses — reimbursements for chandeliers, moat cleaning and mortgage payments have outraged taxpayers — he was blamed for creating a climate that allowed excesses.

In an extremely short statement to the House of Commons, Martin said he would leave the post June 21 to maintain "unity" in Parliament's lower chamber.

"This will allow the house to proceed to elect a new speaker," Martin said. "This is all I have to say on this matter."

He then moved on to other parliamentary business as lawmakers left the chamber, surprised that such a historic moment was over so quickly.

Intense public anger
Since details of lawmakers expense claims were revealed earlier this month, public anger has intensified as party leaders have tried to restore confidence in parliament.

But the desire for change is growing. Conservative leader David Cameron is asking the public to sign a petition urging Prime Minister Gordon Brown to call an election as soon as possible, offering voters a chance to kick out lawmakers who've abused expenses.

"This is not going to be easy," Cameron said on a BBC radio phone-in. "We need to rebuild confidence in the political system."

Brown himself has said that any lawmaker in his Labour party who broke expense rules won't be allowed to run in the next national election, which must be held by mid-2010. The story has dominated the front page of national newspapers for almost two weeks and shows no sign of stopping.

Martin became a symbol of what was wrong in Westminster when he resisted attempts to make lawmakers' expenses more transparent and fought to block publication of the expense claims. But lawmakers themselves have been reluctant to expose their sometimes lavish spending, and Martin's defenders said he was taking the fall for their avarice.

On Monday, Martin invoked parliamentary procedure to stall debate on a no-confidence motion intended to force him out. Normally respectful lawmakers murmured and talked among themselves and had to be called to order repeatedly by Martin as he tried to make himself heard.

Martin's replacement will be elected by the 646 lawmakers in the House of Commons the day after he steps down.

The new speaker will take over a position steeped in history and entrusted with the running of the House of Commons. The speaker keeps order during debates, decides which lawmakers are called on to speak and represents the chamber in discussions with Queen Elizabeth II and the House of Lords. The position is not a partisan one, and the speaker is expected to be fully impartial.

Unlike in the U.S., where the House of Representatives speaker is often a partisan advocate for the majority party and relies on their support, the British speaker is supposed to be impartial and independent of government.

First forced out in 300 years
The last speaker to be forced from his position was Sir John Trevor, who was found guilty of accepting a bribe in 1695.

Rodney Barker, a professor of government at the London School of Economics, said Martin's departure shows Parliament is taking reform seriously.

"It won't solve anything at all, but if his successor could appear to be taking charge of things in a way that implements proper procedures, probity, and decent use of public money, that would be the very opposite of Michael Martin's position," Barker said. "He has been seen as a supporter of the most greedy and the most mean."

Martin was elected to represent a Glasgow constituency in the House of Commons in 1979 as a member of the Labour Party and became speaker in 2000.

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