Wednesday, 24 June 2009

British MPs choose new Speaker

LONDON, ENGLAND, UNITED KINGDOM (JUNE 22, 2009) PARLIAMENT TV -
British lawmakers picked a 46-year-old moderate Conservative to drive reform as speaker of parliament's lower house on Monday (June 22), but analysts say fixing the damage after an expenses scandal will take more than a new face.
Moderniser John Bercow, who has served as a member of parliament since 1997, takes over from Michael Martin after he was forced to step down because of dissatisfaction with his handling of the far-reaching expenses affair.

Politicians from all the big parties have pledged to clean up and reform parliament after media disclosures about their taxpayer-funded allowance claims, which have ranged from moat cleaning to pornography and already-paid mortgages.

Opinion polls show the scandal has most affected the ruling Labour party, which is tipped to lose the next election due by mid-2010, but the main opposition Conservatives made only limited gains in this month's European elections.

Bercow, seen by many MPs as a more progressive alternative to a raft of older frontrunners, saw off nine other candidates including former Labour foreign minister Margaret Beckett and 67-year-old Conservative baronet George Young.

Bercow beat Young in a final ballot, taking 322 of 593 votes cast.

Bercow will now have to help drive changes to the way parliament operates, push to make the government more accountable to the House of Commons and reconnect the public with the political system.

The speaker, who wears a black gown and shouts "order, order" to rein in the parliamentary debates he or she chairs, is chosen from among MPs to be the highest authority of the House of Commons and represents the house to the Queen.

In a packed, cheering lower house, Bercow feigned reluctance as he was traditionally "dragged" to the speaker's chair. The speaker must resign from his or her political party to ensure impartiality.

Bercow's predecessor Martin, a former sheet metal worker, was the first speaker to be ousted in more than 300 years after MPs blamed him for not reacting quickly enough to the expenses scandal which resulted in several resignations.

Martin's departure was relatively peaceful for an ousted speaker, however. Some speakers of old have been executed.

The new speaker will no longer be in charge of the Commons allowances system, which the government plans to hand over to an independent body as part of a broader shake-up of the way parliament is run.