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British PM faces election calls after speaker quits

world Updated: May 20, 2009 14:02 IST

AFP
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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced a grilling by lawmakers on Wednesday after the historic resignation of the House of Commons' speaker in a row over expenses, as calls grow for early elections.

The main opposition Conservatives are likely to step up their calls for Brown to go to the polls within weeks as he seeks to shift the focus from what went wrong to how the system can be improved.

Brown's weekly question and answer session with lawmakers at 12:00 pm (1100 GMT) was the first time they have been able to question him since Speaker Michael Martin was forced to quit on Tuesday.

Martin's resignation, the first by a speaker since 1695, came after 23 lawmakers signed a motion of no confidence in him because of his resistance to reforms to the MPs expenses system.

Leaked documents showing how lawmakers spent lavishly from the public purse on everything from food and drink to tennis court repairs and moat cleaning have been published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper over the last two weeks.

Brown again said sorry for the scandal during a round of television interviews on Wednesday, hours after he tried to move forward by announcing a new wave of proposals to overhaul the system.

"I take responsibility. On this programme, I apologise to the people of this country for what happened," he said on ITV television. "I am angry and I am appalled."

But Conservative leader David Cameron says that apologies and reforms are not enough and wants an early general election.

Cameron -- praised by commentators for his response to the crisis -- is well ahead of Brown in opinion polls and a national vote must be held by mid-2010 at the latest.

"There is now only one way of sorting out the mess, and that is for parliament to be dissolved and for a general election to be held right away," Cameron said this week.

Brown dismissed calls for an early election on Tuesday, saying the problem would not be solved "by a few people changing the name plates... of the constituency they represent."

After Prime Minister's Questions, lawmakers were to debate measures announced on Tuesday night by Martin following his resignation which are designed to shake up the old system.

These include a 1,250 pound (1,420 euro, 1,940 dollar) cap per month on what they can claim for rent and mortgage interest payments and a ban on claims for furniture in second homes and publishing expense claims online every quarter.

Brown has also proposed bringing in an independent regulator to control parliamentary pay and allowances and says Labour lawmakers who have broken the rules will not be allowed to stand at the next election.

"Westminster cannot operate like some gentlemen's club where members make up the rules and operate them among themselves," Brown said on Tuesday.

The British press on Wednesday agreed that Martin's departure had been necessary but that Brown, Cameron and other politicians must still do more to banish the whiff of scandal.

"(Martin's) decision to quit will not rescue the sinking ship that this soiled and discredited parliament has become. Only a general election can do that," said the Sun tabloid, Britain's biggest-selling paper.

The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, described Martin's departure as the first stage of a "very British revolution."

Martin's resignation "reflects a collapse of public faith in the political system," it added.