LONDON - For the first time in three centuries, the speaker of the House of Commons has resigned - the biggest casualty in a widening scandal in which lawmakers expensed such things as installing a chandelier or cleaning a moat at a country home.
Michael Martin took just 30 seconds Tuesday to break with centuries of convention, announcing that in the interest of maintaining unity in Parliament's lower house, he would leave his prestigious post by June 21.
"That is all I have to say on this matter," Martin said softly in his Scottish accent, swiftly calling the house to order and moving on to other business. Lawmakers who had crowded the chamber to hear the historic announcement filed out, surprised that such a moment was over in a flash.
The rest of Britain will likely not move on so easily. Since details of lawmakers' expenses became public earlier this month, the public's anger has intensified. Claims have included such mundane items as cookies and pet food to more costly ones such as a chandelier installation, cleaning of a moat and even mortgage payments.
Conservative leader David Cameron is asking the public to sign a petition urging Prime Minister Gordon Brown to call an election as soon as possible, offering voters a chance to kick out lawmakers who have abused expenses.
Brown is resisting calling an election. He said Tuesday that any lawmaker in his Labour Party who broke expense rules won't be allowed to run in next national election, which must be held by mid-2010.
Instead, he is calling for an overhaul of the system which allowed excesses, and said that Parliament can no longer self-regulate, but should hand supervision of salaries and expenses over to an independent body.
"Westminster cannot operate like some gentleman's club, where the members make up the rules," he said, noting that a junior minister in his government has had to step down and that two members of his party were suspended over their claims.
In a second statement to lawmakers later Tuesday, Martin said Britain's political leaders had agreed to a set of emergency measures aimed at cleaning up the expense system. The proposed rules would bar lawmakers from claiming taxpayer money for furniture, impose a cap on the amount of cash claimed for mortgage payments, and provide for all claims to be published online every three months.
The last measure is particularly striking given that, only a few months ago, the government was still seeking to keep the expense claims secret.
Martin has not been caught up in the recent revelations about lawmakers' expenses, although his spending has been scrutinized in the past. And as the latest wave of revelations hit, Martin was blamed for creating a climate in which such excesses were allowed.
He became a symbol of the scandal because he has resisted reforms designed to make lawmakers' expenses more transparent. But the lawmakers themselves have been reluctant to expose their sometimes lavish spending, and Martin's defenders said he was taking the fall for their avarice.
The Daily Telegraph began publishing stories about lawmakers' claims earlier this month after being leaked thousands of pages of details. About 80 lawmakers have been singled out so far, but the newspaper publishes new details every day and the scandal shows no sign of stopping. No party has been spared embarrassment, with Labour, Conservatives, and Liberal Democrats all coming under fire.
Martin was elected to represent a Glasgow constituency in 1979 as a Labour Party lawmaker and became speaker in 2000. Speakers usually choose when they retire, and are generally not subject to the whims of the electorate.
So Martin had to run for re-election when the country went to the polls, but tradition dictated that major political parties don't field candidates in the speaker's constituency.
Last year, he was criticized for claiming about 4,280 pounds ($6,640) for his wife's taxi fares and around 17,500 pounds ($27,140) toward the cost of his second home in Scotland while he lived in a government-paid apartment in the Palace of Westminster.
The new speaker, who will be chosen from the 646 lawmakers in the House of Commons, will take over a position steeped in history and tradition.
The speaker is entrusted with the running of the House of Commons, trying to maintain decorum during debates - sometimes shouting "Order! Order!" - and deciding which lawmakers are called on. He or she also represents the chamber in discussions with Queen Elizabeth II and the House of Lords.
Unlike in the U.S., where the speaker of the House of Representatives is often a partisan advocate for the majority party, the British speaker is supposed to be impartial and independent of government.
Speakers are usually treated with great respect, and publicly criticizing them just isn't done. The last speaker to be forced from his position was Sir John Trevor, who was found guilty of accepting a bribe in 1695.
Rodney Barker, a government professor at the London School of Economics, said Martin's departure shows Parliament is taking reform seriously.
"It won't solve anything at all, but if his successor could appear to be taking charge of things in a way that implements proper procedures, probity, and decent use of public money, that would be the very opposite of Michael Martin's position," Barker said. "He has been seen as a supporter of the most greedy and the most mean."