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'Profoundly sorry' - but Speaker stays put; Open rebellion as anger grows over expenses.

Byline: Gavin Cordon

ADEFIANT Michael Martin was fighting for his position as Commons Speaker last night in the face of an extraordinary wave of anger over his handling of the MPs' expenses scandal.

In unprecedented scenes in the Commons, a series of MPs rose to demand the chance to vote on a motion of no confidence in him while some openly heckled him.

Mr Martin offered a public apology saying he was "profoundly sorry" for the extent to which he had contributed to the current problems but there was no indication he was prepared to step down.

Instead - amid some procedural confusion - he insisted that it was up to the Government to decide whether there would be a debate on the no confidence motion tabled by Tory backbencher, Douglas Carswell.

There was no sign last night that the ministers were prepared to timetable a debate, the Prime Minister's spokesman saying: "This is something for the business managers to consider at the appropriate time." However, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg warned that if the Government was not prepared to make time for a debate he would seek to ensure MPs got a vote.

"If the Government won't do that, I am already looking at ways in which I could perhaps call that debate and vote, but in the first instance it is the Government which could call that debate and call it tomorrow," he said.

One option could be for the Lib Dems to use one of their opposition days - when they get to choose the subjects for discussion - to debate it.

In the Commons Mr Martin sought to defuse the anger with a statement announcing emergency talks today with the Prime Minister and other party leaders to discuss measures to restore public confidence.

But he was met with a series of hostile interventions from MPs across the political spectrum.

Labour MP Gordon Prentice - one of the signatories to Mr Carswell's motion - opened the onslaught, abruptly demanding to know whether they would be able to debate it when it appears on the Commons Order Paper today.

He was followed by Mr Carswell himself, who demanded: "When will Members be allowed to choose a new Speaker with the moral authority to clean up Westminster and the legitimacy to lift this House out of the mire?" Then senior Labour backbencher David Winnick told Mr Martin: "It would be very useful to the reputation of this House - and I say this with reluctance, but I say it all the same - if you gave some indication of your own intention to retire.

"Your early retirement, Sir, would help the reputation of the House." The veteran Tory Sir Patrick Cormack even compared to situation to the 1940 Norway debate, in the midst of the Second World War, which led to the resignation of Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister.

Another senior Tory Richard Shepherd also called on Mr Martin directly to go, saying the country was in the grip of a "constitutional crisis".

The senior North East Labour MP Sir Stuart Bell, a member of the House of Commons Commission, attempted to rally support for Mr Martin.

But there were gasps of disbelief when he declared: "The majority of this House will fully support the statement you made today." Mr Martin eventually brought the exchanges to a close, declaring: "I am not continuing with what seems to be a debate on this matter. I made the statement to be helpful." Mr Carswell tabled his motion yesterday morning with the support of 15 MPs, including himself, from all the main parties. By last night, according to his website, the total had risen to 18.

Tory leader David Cameron said it was essential that MPs were given the chance to vote on Mr Carswell's motion if it attracted a large number of signatories.

Gordon Brown last night told a private meeting of Labour MPs and peers that it was "imperative, urgent and important that we take action now" to restore public trust on the expenses system..

SKETCH: CONFIDENCE DRAINS AWAY IN BELEAGUERED MARTIN

POLITICAL car crash, death by a thousands cuts, call it what you will.

But Commons Speaker Michael Martin tripped over himself delivering a disastrous apology for his part in the expenses scandal.

Openly challenged by MPs declaring no confidence in him, Mr Martin's authority drained away.

A half-hearted cry of support came only once from a small section of Labour backbenchers.

Otherwise, it was just the sound of angry shouts from his critics.

Speaker Martin, pictured, said he was "profoundly sorry"

to the country and would work hard to restore public trust.

Bizarrely, in Gordon Brown's absence, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was left isolated amid her own expenses controversy, while troubled colleague Communities Secretary Hazel Blears looked utterly diminished. Or should that be finished? But there was no indication from the Speaker of a departure date or apologies to MPs Kate Hoey and Lib Dem Norman Baker who got a verbal bashing last week.

Graciously, he allowed "points of order" that focussed on one question - "When will you go".

When quizzed about a debate on his future to lift the Commons out of the "mire", the Speaker appeared uncertain and looked to his clerks, eventually deciding it could only be debated if it became a "substantive" motion.

At least one minister shook his head as Middlesbrough MP Sir Stuart Bell gallantly tried to defend the Speaker's statement.

Tellingly, fellow Labour MP David Winnick shouted at him: "What world is he living in?"
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 19, 2009
Words:916
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