Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Speaker quits 'for sake of unity'.

The scandal over MP's expenses claims in Britain has claimed it's first scalp. The speaker, Michael Martin, who the parliamentarians were calling to fall on his own sword - despite the fact that it was they who were making the bogus claims, rather than him - has obliged.

It is the first time a speaker has been forced from office in 300 years.

In a brief statement, he said he would step down on 21 June, with a successor set to be elected by MPs the next day.

Mr Martin, who will also step down as an MP, has faced criticism over his handling of the MP expenses issue.

He later announced a clampdown on MPs' expenses - with a £1,250 cap on mortgage and rent payments.

He was clapped and cheered by MPs as he announced emergency changes to the expenses system which have been agreed between the party leaders.

These include a ban on "flipping" of second homes and of using allowances to buy furniture and household goods - and a £1,250 a month cap on mortgage or rent on second homes, which will come down in future years.

He said all parties were now committed to accepting the recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life, provided they met certain tests.

So, it's not enough that he steps down as the Speaker, he will also step down as an MP, prompting a by-election, which is the last thing the Labour Party need.

Labour MP's shook his hand after he made his announcement, the Tories did not. This shows the Tories have been playing party politics with this issue since this scandal emerged and that it plays into Cameron's wish to portray this as a Labour Party problem.

Cameron continues to act as if what we need now is a new government, implying that his party are somehow removed from the scandal that is currently overwhelming British politics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Brown, for reasons only he could explain, is allowing that impression to enter the public domain.

He couldn't have handled this situation in a worse way that he has. He has allowed a scandal that was engulfing both parties to be portrayed by Cameron as a Labour scandal which requires a Conservative solution.

That's simply playing the game badly. It's hard to see the next election as anything other than over at this point. Labour are simply handing it over to the Tories on a plate.

It was these Labour MPs, who have been touched by Martin's pastoral care, that lined up to shake his hands as he sat in the Speaker's chair after making his statement yesterday. Nick Soames, the Tory MP who is the grandson of Winston Churchill, was the only Conservative MP to shake Martin's hands in the first minutes after his statement.

But the most significant moment came when Nick Brown, Labour's chef whip, walked slowly up to the chair and laid his hands on the Speaker's hands. Brown and the rest of the government whips are troubled for the Speaker at a personal level. But they also believe the overthrow of the Speaker that has been orchestrated by senior figures in the Tory party.

Another senior Labour figure said: "It is obvious what the Tories are up to. They have unseated the Speaker, leaving ­Gordon Brown vulnerable. They will then go for Gordon. If they get him they will then force a general election. They would then hope to win that in what would then be a true constitutional mess. This feels like a coup."

Indeed, it does. But it's a coup that could have been resisted much more firmly.

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