May 19, 2009 / 3:11 PM / in 8 years

History and intrigue collide in British MPs scandal

LONDON (Reuters) - If you blinked you might have missed it. In just 22 words, the Speaker of Britain’s lower house of parliament resigned on Tuesday, becoming only the second person in 300 years to be forced from the job.

<p>Britain's Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, addresses the House to announce that he will step down, in central London May 19, 2009. The Speaker of Britain's lower house said on Tuesday he would step down in June after criticism of his handling of a scandal over lawmakers' expenses that has badly tarnished the reputation of the "Mother of Parliaments". REUTERS/Parbul TV via Reuters TV</p>

The decision by Michael Martin, Speaker of the House of Commons and one of the most powerful men in the country, follows days of turmoil triggered by a paper’s publication of MPs’ expenses, disclosing charges ranging from moat cleaning and sex films to manure and mortgage payments on the taxpayers’ account.

Martin, whose role included overseeing the fees office that permitted the claims, was admirably brief in his resignation speech but it still made for compelling political theater.

“In order that unity can be maintained, I have decided that I will relinquish the office of Speaker on Sunday, June 21,” he told parliament, becoming only the second person since 1695 to give up the post under pressure.

The first was Sir John Trevor who was forced out of the post for accepting a bribe to get a bill through the house.

Martin, a veteran Labour politician and former sheet metalworker who gave up his formal party affiliation when he ascended to the Speaker’s chair in October 2000, was never the most popular head of the house.

In recent months there was constant murmuring calling on him to quit the 141,000 pound ($210,000) a year job. On Monday, in extraordinary parliamentary scenes Martin’s authority was openly challenged and he faced a no-confidence motion signed by 23 MPs.

But even if politicians openly agitated for his departure, getting rid of an elected Speaker is no easy task.

The Speaker’s role is full of pomp and ceremony. He (or she) has to be symbolically dragged to the Speaker’s chair to take up the post, wears a black silk robe and shouts “Order!” to impose discipline. But the Speaker is also immensely powerful.

The Speaker sets the agenda for debate in parliament, calls on members of parliament to speak, can limit question time and decide whether amendments should be voted on.

They also traditionally serve as a liaison with the monarch, acting as a buffer between the Commons and the sovereign.

In the past, when relations between the two were not always so good, Speakers had a deadly job. In fact, nine Speakers, all prior to 1560, died a violent death, one murdered, one killed in battle and seven beheaded, two on the same day.

TIME FOR CHANGE?

Martin’s departure is therefore momentous and historic, but may also presage changes to the post, one with which the British public is largely unfamiliar.

David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservatives, said it was no good getting rid of Martin if he was only going to be replaced by another “person in a funny black costume.”

Members of parliament say Martin’s stepping down gives an opportunity for a more modern approach to the role of Speaker.

“It creates a big opportunity. what we need is a new Speaker who tears apart this gentleman’s club, rips it apart, the unwritten rules, the nod and the wink,” said Labour’s John Mann.

“It’s a big opportunity to sort things out but that depends on getting the right kind of person in. He was the front end of the system so inevitably his was the head most likely to go.”

Finding a successor once Martin stands down on June 21 could be a bitter process. It will involve groups of 12 to 15 MPs submitting names to the clerk of the house from June 22.

Those names are then voted on by the whole house in a secret ballot, with the lowest-scoring candidate eliminated, until one candidate has received more than 50 percent of the vote.

The situation where there has been more than one candidate has occurred only four times since the beginning of the 20th century, most recently on October 23, 2000, when Martin was proposed as Speaker.

The expenses scandal has increased calls for parliamentary elections, not due until mid-2010, to be brought forward.

But political analysts say that is unlikely to happen as Labour, which still has a majority in parliament but is behind in opinion polls, does not want to hold one now.

Yet elections will happen at some point in the next year, and in the meantime, a new Speaker will have to be elected and pull the house together after one of the most dramatic weeks that the 800-year-old parliament has experienced in centuries.

Additional reporting by Adrian Croft and Kate Kelland, Editing by Peter Millership

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