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Times man witnesses political history

PUBLISHED: 17:59 20 May 2009 | UPDATED: 10:05 12 August 2010

ARRIVING at Westminster, Parliament Square is crammed with hundreds of angry protesters calling for politicians to come to the aid of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. But no matter how loud they shout this date will be written large in the annals of history for

ARRIVING at Westminster, Parliament Square is crammed with hundreds of angry protesters calling for politicians to come to the aid of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

But no matter how loud they shout this date will be written large in the annals of history for a different reason - for it was the day the Speaker of the House of Commons resigned.

On Tuesday, for the first time since Sir John Trevor was forced out after being found guilty of accepting a bribe in 1695, Michael Martin stepped down from his post as the Speaker. He has been under pressure for more than 12 months after fighting in court to keep MPs' expenses claims secret. Two weeks ago, when the details were revealed by the Daily Telegraph, he angered MPs further by apparently being more concerned with finding out how they were leaked than with the claims themselves.

In the moments before the afternoon parliamentary session was opened a mix of sightseers, passers-by and members of the press gathered in the Central Lobby to watch Martin make his final procession from the Palace of Westminster to the Commons. Flanked by his staff and dressed in his black ceremonial robes he looked flustered as he stepped deliberately behind the Sergeant at Arms and into the chambers.

There was an air of tension as he delivered his brief speech to the House followed by the cold, hard realisation that the expenses scandal had just claimed its most high-profile scalp.

"Since I came to this House 30 years ago, I have always felt that the House is at its best when it is united," he said.

"In order that unity can be maintained, I have decided that I will relinquish the office of Speaker on Sunday June 21.

"That is all I have to say on this matter."

With that the session resumed and, save for the odd member who approached Martin to shake his hand as they left, it was business as usual.

But there can be no doubt the expenses scandal has rocked British politics to its core.

Elsewhere among the wood-panelled corridors of parliament, under the watchful eyes of the Prime Ministers from days gone by immortalised in paintings and sculptures, there is an undeniable tension hanging in the air. Even as a visitor you can feel it

Whether strolling through Westminster Hall past the tourists and schoolchildren to the sound of teachers' voices echoing off the flagstone floor or soft-footing across the homely Axminster on route to discuss the issues of the day in the committee rooms, members seem a little jumpy and perhaps the famous British stiff upper lip is starting to quiver.

Speaking on the terrace of the Commons cafeteria Dr Howard Stoate, MP for Dartford, said: "I think everyone is really anxious about this. I don't think we realised just how angry the public are.

"This is the biggest crisis for probably 100 years. It's a major constitutional crisis and it has got to be fixed."

The MP says he has noticed a change in mood on the street as public trust in politicians is at an all-time low.

With an independent review, headed by sleaze watchdog Sir Christopher Kelly, under way and the complete details of the claims to be released in July it is uncertain how long it will take for the House to recover. But one thing is clear - an awful lot of damage has already been done.

With timid nature the MPs stroll around the corridors, far removed from the usual heckling of Question Time. You can sense that although Michael Martin is one of the first to go he is almost certainly not going to be the last.

jason.goodyer@archant.co.uk

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