LONDON (Reuters) - British politicians are fond of holding up their gothic riverside parliament as a model of how democratic politics should be done, but two high-profile scandals have exposed hypocrisy at its core, placing its reputation in peril.
In the first, John Sewel, a lord and the deputy speaker of the House of Lords, the upper chamber, was filmed snorting what The Sun on Sunday newspaper said was cocaine with two prostitutes.
In the second, a freedom of information request showed that John Bercow, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, the House of Commons, had made a series of startling expenses claims that raised questions about his use of public funds.
Hypocrisy appeared to loom large in both episodes.
Lord Sewel was in charge of standards and discipline in the upper chamber, while Bercow has lectured students on the need for probity among lawmakers and helped oversee the introduction of more transparent standards after a devastating parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009.
Both cases now threaten to punch a hole in the reputation of the British parliament - sometimes referred to as ‘the mother of parliaments’ - and fuel already deep public scepticism about the integrity of Britain’s politicians.
A front-page story on Monday in The Sun pictured Sewel, whom it dubbed “Lord Coke”, clad in an orange bra and black leather jacket borrowed from one of the prostitutes. He was also shown snorting white powder through a rolled up five-pound-note.
The two cases are likely to spur calls to overhaul the unelected House of Lords, a chamber which with over 800 members critics say is becoming too big because of the sitting prime minister’s right to regularly replenish its ranks with political appointees.
Nor did Sewel, 69, do his fellow peers any favors, using an expletive in the same video to tell his scantily-clad female companions that he and other lords did no work despite receiving generous daily allowances merely to turn up.
“(This) doesn’t leave us with a very good smell under the nose of the public quite frankly,” Betty Boothroyd, a former House of Commons speaker who is now a member of the House of Lords, told BBC radio.
“I’m very ashamed of what he’s done because he’s brought the House into some disrepute.”
Less than two weeks previously, Sewel had written an article boasting of how the House of Lords had taken steps to protect its image. He had said only a small number of lords broke the rules and that most understood that personal honor came first.
Sewel was quick to resign his post as deputy speaker and is now facing an investigation by the police and parliamentary authorities. He is also under pressure to quit as a lord, and on Monday said he would not return to parliament until the investigations had been completed.
“In the light of their outcome I will review my long term position,” he said in a letter to the clerk of the parliaments.
Bercow’s case was less colorful and he is not under serious pressure to quit even though the detail of his expenses claims caused a media furor.
He was shown to have frequently used an official car - at exorbitant cost - to travel relatively short distances to attend events, and to have spent more than 13,000 pounds ($20,000) on visiting Australia to address that country’s parliament.
He was also shown to have spent hundreds of pounds buying alcohol for his allies in parliament, with public money.
A spokesman for Bercow said he was always “mindful of costs” but had a duty to attend public events and sometimes needed an official car “to facilitate timing requirements.”
Andy Silvester, campaign director for the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said Bercow’s expenses claims were “obscene.”
“The idea that you can somehow come up with a 172-pound-journey taking less than a mile is ludicrous. You could fly to Rome on Ryanair for that. Clearly something has gone horribly wrong.”
The Sewel expose marks a return to form for Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid newspaper empire.
He was forced to shut down the muckraking News of the World in 2011 after it became engulfed in a phone hacking scandal. He later opened The Sun on Sunday as a replacement.
Some media pundits speculated that the closure represented the end of big tabloid newspaper stings. Lord Sewel’s predicament suggests otherwise.
($1 = 0.6421 pounds)
Additional reporting by Stephen Addison and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Giles Elgood