- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

LONDON | The scandal over parliamentary expense accounts claimed its highest-profile victim to date Tuesday as calls mounted for an early general election that would surely spell trouble for embattled Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Labor Party.

Michael Martin, the speaker in the British House of Commons, announced his resignation effective June 21. It was the first time a speaker has been forced from his post in 300 years.

Both Labor and the Conservative Party are embroiled in the scandal over claims that range from the arcane - moat cleaning - to the petty - garden manure. However, Labor is taking the biggest hits. Although the speaker’s job is somewhat symbolic and is supposed to be politically neutral, Mr. Martin was originally elected as a Labor Party member, and his downfall was seen as a blow against Mr. Brown’s leadership.

Mr. Martin had faced almost an open revolt Monday as lawmakers from all parties voiced anger over his past efforts to exempt parliamentary expense accounts from freedom of information laws.

Voters suffering through Britain’s worst recession since World War II have become increasingly incensed as details of lawmakers’ expense claims have dribbled out in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Among the claims: About $3,050 for cleaning a moat around a parliamentarian’s estate and about $2,100 for a leather-upholstered rocking chair. Legislators also have charged taxpayers for dog food, garden manure, plasma televisions, Jacuzzis, decorating projects and for workers to change their light bulbs. In a few cases, police are investigating incidents in which lawmakers charged for mortgages that had already been paid off.

Dozens of lawmakers have vowed to return the money, including Margaret Moran, a Labor lawmaker, who said she will return the $34,840 she claimed for treating dry rot at a second home about 100 miles from her constituency.

Conservative Party leader David Cameron has called for a petition campaign for the dissolution of Parliament and an immediate general election so that voters can deliver their verdict on the crisis. An election does not have to be held until 2010

“This government could cling on, but the country doesn’t want to wait another year to pass judgment on this government,” Mr. Cameron told reporters Monday.

Surveys show that Britons blame both parties for the scandal, which could help the Liberal Democrats as well as far-right parties in the June 4 voting for the European Parliament.

A Sky News survey released Tuesday found that 36.5 percent of those polled would vote against all major parties in a snap general election. Some 23.8 percent said they would vote for a smaller party, while 12.6 percent would back an independent candidate.

Still, the Conservatives fared better than Labor, with a majority of voters saying Mr. Cameron’s party has been the most adept at handling the crisis. As a result, most political analysts think Labor - in power for 12 years - would take the greatest beating in any upcoming election.

Mr. Cameron has promised to take action against any Conservative lawmakers making excessive expense claims.

“We have found ourselves in a moral ditch,” said Douglas Carswell, a Conservative member of Parliament. “We need radical reform.”

Although Britain has one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world, Mr. Carswell and others have demanded a shake-up of the system so that it resembles the American style of government. For example, Mr. Carswell said Britain should consider open primaries to replace the current method of selecting candidates with the help of closed and often entrenched groups.

Mr. Brown has come out swinging by promising to examine the last four years of expenses claimed by every member of Parliament.

He also said that “root-and-branch” reform would soon be under way that could result in major changes to the overall compensation system.

Currently, Britain’s 646 legislators receive an annual salary of almost 65,000 British pounds - about $100,000 - but claimed an average of $144,000 each in allowances.

Jyette Klausen, a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University in Boston, said that, from a U.S. viewpoint, most of the expenses are laughably small.

“If you are going to scam the taxpayers, why do it for garden compost and IKEA furniture?” she asked. “But the pettiness of it makes the British public more furious because, one assumes, it makes it seem so ordinary.”

She also noted that British lawmakers are poorly paid by international standards, pointing out that members of the U.S. Congress are paid between $175,000 and $225,000 a year.

Others said a scandal involving only expenses would be unusual in Washington.

“I must confess that I can’t immediately call to mind many huge scandals inside the Beltway about expenses,” said Kathleen Burk, a specialist on trans-Atlantic relations at University College London. “They seem to tend more towards pure corruption and bribes, whether in money or in kind.”

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