British PM seeks fresh start, but speaker fuels splits

24th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Struggling to draw a line under weeks of political turmoil, members of parliament elected John Bercow in a secret ballot on Monday night, though some think his win was due to a political gambit.

London -- Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged a "new chapter" Tuesday after lawmakers replaced their scandal-tainted speaker, but the choice sparked fresh splits among MPs reeling from a damaging expenses row.

Struggling to draw a line under weeks of political turmoil, members of parliament (MPs) elected John Bercow in a secret ballot on Monday night, to succeed Michael Martin, the first speaker to be forced out in over 300 years.

But critics say that Brown's ruling Labour party only backed him for tactical reasons ahead of elections it expects to lose next year, noting that Bercow is deeply unpopular within his own opposition Conservatives.

"It was a vindictive political act on behalf of the Labour Party towards what they see to be the future Conservative government and the British people," said Tory MP Nadine Dorries.

"It had nothing to do with reform -- it was all about the Labour Party playing party politics through a red mist," she said.

Media reports suggest that only a handful of Bercow's fellow Tory MPs voted for the 46-year-old -- who is seen as close to Labour -- adding that the Tories could try to oust him after elections due by next June.

A new survey by the Harris polling institute Tuesday put the Conservatives on 30 percent, Labour on 17 and the Liberal Democrats on 14 percent.

Bercow, 46, promised to be a "clean-break candidate" ready for reform after the expenses scandal, which claimed the scalps of about 20 ministers and lawmakers -- including Martin, accused of failing to help clean up the system.

The speaker is required to be strictly neutral, renouncing his party membership as the public face of the lower house of parliament. The role involves chairing debates and curbing the famously rowdy behaviour of MPs.

But Bercow, the son of a Jewish taxi-driver, will also be expected to lead lawmakers in moving past the expenses row, which has caused widespread public anger and disillusionment.

"We have faced quite the most testing time, which has left many members feeling very sore and vulnerable but large sections of the public also feel angry and disappointed," he said after his election.

"I continue to believe the vast majority of Members of this House are upright, decent, honourable people who have come into politics not to feather their nests but because they have heeded the call of public service."

Brown welcomed his election, saying in an article in the Daily Mail newspaper that it was time to "start the job of cleaning up British politics".

"Starting today, a new chapter will be opened in the history of politics in this country," said Brown, who was to introduce new legislation to reform parliament on Tuesday.

Conservative leader David Cameron also repeated his support for reform on Monday night when he congratulated Bercow, who beat fellow Conservative lawmaker Sir George Young by 322 votes to 271 in the third round of voting.

"We share a collective responsibility for what went wrong, we share a collective responsibility for putting it right," Cameron said.

Constitutional expert Lord St John of Fawsley said the Conservatives would have to come to terms with Bercow.

"If they cannot yet love Mr Bercow, their duty is to support him, and they may come to change their personal opinions in the course of time," he said.

Bercow himself has come under fire for his expenses.

He has promised to pay back 6,500 pounds (10,600 dollars, 7,600 euros) after admitting he had not paid sales tax when he sold his previous constituency and London homes in 2003.

However, he said he had done nothing wrong and had repaid the money "voluntarily".

Michael Thurston/AFP/Expatica

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