Britain's speaker teeters on brink of taxpayer-cleaned moat

House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin caught in public anger over expense scandal

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LONDON – British parliamentarians have moved to oust the Speaker of the House of Commons amid a growing constitutional crisis. The problem? A stream of reports about politicians who are sticking the British taxpayer with personal expense claims, such as tennis court repairs.

Michael Martin, who as Speaker, is supposed to be above politics. Instead, he risks becoming the first speaker in 300 years to be ousted by a no-confidence motion. He made a public plea Monday to keep his job in parliament's elected second chamber.

The speaker is accused of trying to protect members of parliament by keeping the public in the dark about expenses being footed by British taxpayers.

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What kind of expenses? How about $3,025 for the cost of cleaning a moat surrounding one MP's estate? Or $174 to change the light bulbs in a member of parliament's home?

Mr. Martin, a member of the ruling Labour Party, says he will be hosting an emergency meeting of leaders for discussions on reforming the discredited expenses system.

"Please let me say to the men and women of the United Kingdom, we have let you down very badly indeed and we must all accept blame," said Martin Monday.

But it may be too little, too late. Almost immediately he faced impassioned calls from members of parliament for his immediate retirement to make way for a replacement with "the moral authority to clean up Westminster."

To anger from MPs on both sides of the house, he used a procedural technicality to prevent the no-confidence motion in him from being debated, causing more doubt about just what happens next.

Most observers now predict that it is too late for Martin while Nick Clegg, the leader of Britain's third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, broke with convention Sunday by calling for him to go.

Such is the extent of public anger and scale of the controversy - dozens of MPs from three mainstream parties have been tainted - that Britain may soon face its own version of the "Clean Hands" corruption controversy which swept away Italy's postwar political establishment in the 1990s.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party may be in trouble. The London tabloid, The Sun, called Monday for an immediate general election.

Elsewhere, ordinary voters are being asked to channel their anger into websites, such as www.dishonourable.org.uk , which invites them to nominate MPs they feel have done wrong and to choose independent candidates to run against them in the next election.

"I just became so angry from reading the papers that I felt that I had to do something and it seemed like a logical thing to do with my skills," says the site's creater, Ian Fairbairn, a web developer and estate agent.

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