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Scandal-hit British parliament chooses new speaker

British lawmakers gathered on Monday to elect a new speaker after the previous holder became the first to be forced out in 300 years amid an expenses scandal that has rocked the country’s politics.

world Updated: Jun 22, 2009 19:51 IST

British lawmakers gathered on Monday to elect a new speaker after the previous holder became the first to be forced out in 300 years amid an expenses scandal that has rocked the country’s politics.

Ten members of parliament (MPs) are in contention for the job of Speaker of the House of Commons, the lower house of parliament’s public face and a position with a 600-year history rich in tradition and pageantry.

Former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett is the frontrunner, but other candidates include a Sikh lawmaker and a cat-loving ex-minister whose nickname is Doris Karloff.

When Michael Martin stepped down on Sunday, he became the first speaker to be forced out in more than 300 years after his authority was critically eroded over his resistance to changing the system of lawmakers’ expenses.

Some 20 MPs and ministers have quit in recent weeks, after a wave of embarrassing revelations about claims for everything from home loan repayments to duck islands and moat cleaning.

Some observers want his successor to be a reformer who is determined to restore public trust in the so-called Mother of Parliaments, but some lawmakers fear the election could produce another political lightweight.

The bookmakers’ favourite, Beckett, is the only one of the candidates to have held one of the major offices of state. She was to be the first candidate to address her fellow MPs, before voting due to start from 1530 GMT.

Beckett, 66, is a veteran member of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party. She is favourite ahead of George Young, a long-serving lawmaker from the main opposition Conservatives.

Another leading contender, John Bercow, is a Conservative who divides his own party because of his perceived sympathy to the Labour Party. He has wide Labour support.

Other hopefuls include Parmjit Dhanda, a former trade union organiser, and Conservative right-winger Ann Widdecombe, nicknamed Doris Karloff after 1930s “Frankenstein” actor Boris Karloff, partly for her no-nonsense views.

Each of the hopefuls were to have the chance to make their case in a speech to their fellow MPs later on Monday.

Some MPs have alleged that Labour whips are trying to influence the contest, which is supposed to be free from party influence as the speaker must have a neutral role as the ‘referee´ in parliamentary debates.

Labour MP Stephen Pound warned that the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring was inflicting fresh damage on parliament. “There is a lot of skulduggery going on,” he told BBC Radio.

“It is great opportunity for us to present a new, fresh face for parliament and a lot of it looks like the same old, stale corruption, I fear.”

But the leader of the House of Commons, senior Labour figure Harriet Harman, strongly denied that government whips were working to ensure that Beckett is elected. “I am sure there is no skulduggery and nor should there be,” Harman told BBC Radio.

The job of speaker involves chairing debates in the House of Commons, selecting who can speak and curbing the famously rowdy behaviour of MPs, using the famous cry of “order, order!”

Bercow said in his manifesto that voters would look to the new speaker to be a figurehead for the efforts to revamp the expenses system.

“The brutal fact is that the reputation of parliament is at rock bottom,” Bercow wrote. “The next speaker faces an unprecedented challenge -- to help clean up politics... and to build a relationship of mutual respect with the electorate.

“Above all, the speaker must be part of the solution and must drive the process of renewal.”