History and intrigue collide in British MPs scandal

Tue May 19, 2009 11:09am EDT
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By Luke Baker

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.

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.   Continued...

<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>