By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
LONDON, May 19 -- The speaker of Britain's House of Commons, Michael Martin, resigned his position Tuesday under withering criticism of his handling of a growing scandal over politicians' expense accounts.
It marked the first time in more than 300 years that someone in that powerful position has been forced out of office.
Martin's resignation, effective June 21, is more bad news for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose popularity rating has dipped to about 25 percent in recent polls. Martin, a member of Brown's Labor Party for 30 years, has been speaker since 2000.
After days of calls for his resignation, Martin told a packed House of Commons on Tuesday: "I have always felt that the house is at its best when it is united. In order that unity can be maintained, I have decided that I will relinquish the office of speaker."
After his 35-second statement, he curtly added: "That is all I have to say on the matter."
Public fury has been rising over items that politicians have charged to taxpayers -- a massage chair, pornographic movies, a moat cleaning, a plasma TV, horse manure for gardens, and tennis court repairs. Some members put in bills for mortgage payments even though their loans had been paid off.
Some elected officials seemed to be using expense accounts as a way to supplement a salary many consider too low -- $100,000 at current exchange rates.
Politicians' expense accounts were to be released publicly for the first time in July, but the Daily Telegraph published leaked reports.
On Monday, Martin stood in his black robe at the head of the storied chamber and said, "To the extent that I have contributed to the situation, I am profoundly sorry."
But that did not quiet calls for a new leader of the 646-member House of Commons.
A few supporters said Martin was made a scapegoat. But critics said he presided over an era in which members thought that chandeliers and extravagant hanging flower baskets were legitimate expenses. Martin fought efforts to make the bills submitted by lawmakers available to the public. At one point, when many were expecting an apology, Martin called on the police to find the source of the leak.
The last time a speaker was forced out was in 1695, according to the House of Commons office, which said John Trevor was found guilty of accepting a bribe.
Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg, one of the many who had called for Martin's resignation, said Tuesday: "It had to happen. It's been an extremely unpleasant week. You can't clean up a cesspool without doing some unpleasant things."
Douglas Hogg, a Conservative Party member who claimed more than $3,000 for the cleaning of the moat around his country home, announced that he would not seek reelection.
Brown must call a general election by June 2010.
Conservative Party leader David Cameron, who is favored to become the next prime minister, is asking people to sign a petition demanding that Brown call the election soon.
At a news conference, Brown said members of his party had made expense claims that were "totally unacceptable," even if they were technically within the rules. He said Labor members who "defied the rules" should not run for reelection.
Brown also said that the tradition-bound chamber would be run differently and that an independent watchdog would oversee lawmakers' expenses.