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UK Commons speaker resigns over expenses

By Jennifer Quinn
Associated Press / May 20, 2009
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LONDON - The powerful speaker of the British House of Commons resigned yesterday, 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 a 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.

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 Labor 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 national news for two weeks and shows no signs of abating.

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.