Speaker's exit fails to quell British reform calls

  • World
  • Wednesday, 20 May 2009

LONDON (Reuters) - Reformists called for a fundamental shakeup of Britain's political system on Wednesday, saying the first ousting of a parliamentary speaker in 300 years was not enough to still public anger over an expenses scandal.

Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron said an early general election was the only way to give Britain a fresh start after disclosures about legislators' expenses angered voters and tarnished the reputation of parliament.

But Prime Minister Gordon Brown rejected his demand, saying it was not the time for the "chaos of an election" in the middle of Britain's worst recession since World War Two.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper has rocked Britain's political class with disclosures of how lawmakers used public funds to pay for everything from cleaning a moat to manure for their gardens.

Parliamentary Speaker Michael Martin stepped down on Tuesday, the first speaker to be forced from his post since John Trevor in 1695. Martin had come under fire for his resistance to publishing legislators' expense claims.

Senior Conservative member of parliament (MP) Alan Duncan told Sky News Britain had gone through "almost a sort of spring revolution over the last few weeks".

The controversy has hurt all major parties, but particularly Brown's Labour party, in power for 12 years and due to face a general election by mid-2010.


Cameron's Conservatives have a double-digit lead over centre-left Labour in the polls, enough to give them a landslide win. Most analysts think Brown will wait as long as he can to call an election in the hope that the economy will begin to improve.

Analysts say fringe parties, such as the far-right British National Party and pro-environment Greens, will get a boost at June 4 local and European elections as voters punish the major parties over the expenses affair.

If Labour do badly on June 4, it could spark a challenge to Brown's Labour leadership and raise pressure on him to bring forward the parliamentary election.

Many politicians and newspapers said a change of Speaker was only the start of the reforms needed to Britain's tradition-laden parliament.

Cameron has called for the scrapping of a 10,000 pound ($15,480) communications allowance and said the number of MPs should be reduced. There have also been calls for U.S.-style recall elections to oust MPs found to have abused the system.

Anti-sleaze campaigner Martin Bell, a former MP, said the election of a new Speaker, set for June 22, opened a "wonderful opportunity for our democracy".

Parliament faces more bad publicity on Wednesday when the upper House of Lords is expected to suspend two Labour members found guilty by a Lords' committee last week of offering to try to get laws amended in return for money.

Brown says he is pushing through reforms to end the "gentlemen's club" atmosphere of parliament and has pledged tough action against MPs who break the rules.

"I apologise to the people of this country for what happened," he told GMTV television on Wednesday.

Labour's Harriet Harman, leader of the lower House of Commons, said voters had become cynical about parliament before the expenses revelations hit the headlines.

"We must now seize the opportunity to promote a debate which will see all the proposals to change and to strengthen our democracy move from the margins to centre stage," she said.

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