Blundering Brown defies election calls clamour
GORDON Brown yesterday sidestepped demands for an immediate general election, as campaigners intensified calls for the public to be given their say over the MPs' expenses scandal.
As further details of their claims emerged, Conservative leader David Cameron insisted an early election was the only way to give Britain a fresh start after parliament's reputation was tarnished by the disclosures about MPs' expenses.
First Minister Alex Salmond, senior Liberal Democrats and Scottish Tories have all called for a snap poll.
On the Downing Street website, a 4,154-name petition calls for an immediate election, while more than 8,000 people have backed a campaign by a tabloid newspaper to give voters a chance to rid parliament of "money-grabbing" MPs.
But Mr Brown said now was not the time for the "chaos of an election" in the middle of Britain's worst recession since the Second World War. He insisted it was right to reform the system first, saying: "It is for this parliament to face up to its responsibilities, to change and to clean up the system."
He was taunted by Mr Cameron, who claimed the Prime Minister was stalling because he expected to lose.
"I know the Prime Minister is frightened of elections," Mr Cameron said, "but how can he possibly believe that in the fourth year of a parliament in one of the oldest democracies in the world, a general election would cause chaos?"
Mr Brown then blundered by saying it would "cause chaos if a Conservative government were elected". The Tory leader seized on this as Mr Brown's "first admission" that he expected to lose the election.
Sir Robert Smith, the Liberal Democrat MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, warned Mr Brown at Prime Minister's Questions that the country felt it had lost touch with the political system.
"On the doorstep, it is clear that there is no confidence left in the Prime Minister's government," he said, adding: "Why does he not have the courage to trust the people and go to them and let them have a say on how this country should be run?"
Mr Brown's refusal to call an election came as a clear-out of those embroiled in the expenses debacle moved one step closer with Labour MPs referred to disciplinary panels.
Communities Secretary Hazel Blears faces being axed from the Cabinet in the next month's expected reshuffle over her initial failure to pay capital gains tax on her second property.
Mr Brown yesterday fuelled speculation that she would not survive the controversy after describing her expense claim as "totally unacceptable".
His spokesman later said the Prime Minister thought Ms Blears was doing a "good job" – the same term he used about Michael Martin days before he resigned as Commons Speaker.
Ms Blears told reporters in her Salford constituency she was optimistic of keeping her job. "The Prime Minister said that I have acted entirely within the rules, as I have always said.
"But I also recognise that acting within the rules does not cut it with the public, and that is why I paid the money."
For many MPs, the prospect of deselection gathered pace as activists put pressure on the party leaders to take a tougher stance.
Tony Lloyd, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), warned that those caught up in scandalous expense claims would be barred from standing at the next election.
Amid continued public fury, Margaret Moran, who claimed 22,500 for treating dry rot for a home miles from her Luton South constituency, became the third Labour MP to be referred for a grilling by an expert panel on expenses.
She joins David Chaytor and Elliot Morley, who both claimed for mortgages that had been paid off, and all three face the prospect of deselection.
Former television presenter Esther Rantzen has threatened to oppose Ms Moran if she stands at the next general election.
Meanwhile, Mr Morley, a former environment minister, stood down temporarily as chairman of the Commons energy and climate change committee, losing the 14,000 bonus that goes with the post. He has already been suspended from the PLP and sacked as Mr Brown's climate change envoy.
Mr Morley claimed parliamentary expenses totalling 16,800 for mortgage interest on a loan that had already been paid off. He is repaying the money and voluntarily referred himself for investigation by the parliamentary standards committee.
Mr Chaytor is paying back 13,000 after claiming that he mistakenly overclaimed for his mortgage.
An audit of Labour MPs' expenses from the past four years is being held as part of the crackdown, with Mr Brown pledging that "immediate" disciplinary action will be taken if required.
He also held out the prospect of electoral reforms – a pledge dropped by Labour after its 1997 landslide – promising to bring forward a constitutional convention in the weeks ahead.
Former cabinet minister Ruth Kelly was last night reported to have claimed thousands of pounds for flood damage to her second home – despite the building being insured. She had already announced she would step down at the next general election.
Meanwhile, Sir Peter Viggers, a Conservative whip, announced he would quit at the next election over a massive taxpayer-funded gardening bill. Sir Peter, the MP for Gosport, was told to retire or be thrown out of the party by Mr Cameron after the publication of his claims – including one for a 1,645 floating "duck island" for his pond.
Earlier, Tory MP Anthony Steen, who claimed 80,000 over four years for the upkeep of his 1 million home in Devon, has announced his retirement. The MP for Totnes told the ConservativeHome website that he had become a distraction.
That announcement came a day after another Conservative MP, Douglas Hogg, revealed he was standing down at the general election after lodging claims to clear out his moat.
Another Tory whip, Bill Wiggin, last night blamed an administrative error for 11,000 in claims for mortgage interest on the wrong home – insisting he had not benefited financially.
Earlier this week, Mr Cameron signalled he would seek to purge his party of anyone who abused the expenses system, even if they had already been reselected by their local constituency parties.
Union bosses have threatened to install their own rival candidates for the Labour Party if the Prime Minister does not take action against rogue MPs.
The 315,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union will be canvassed about backing union candidates, or even standing themselves.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary, said the idea "went down a storm" among delegates at the PCS annual conference in Brighton yesterday.
He said voters "despaired" at the lack of choice, adding: "The hypocrisy and double standards have made people very angry, and they are feeling depressed and despondent about the state of British politics."
Back in London, Mr Lloyd admitted public anger would force the party to take tougher action.
Last night, 63 prospective Labour parliamentary candidates signed up to a five-point pledge to demonstrate that they were not seeking office for personal gain.
A PM under fire – and members axed or facing the chop
DOUGLAS HOGG: The former Tory Cabinet minister who submitted arguably the most infamous claim of any MP – 2,115 for having a moat cleared. He had claimed more than 20,000 a year in second home allowances, including 40 for piano tuning, and has decided to step down.
ANTHONY STEEN: The Tory MP for Totnes claimed more than 80,000 from the taxpayer over four years for work at his 1 million Devon mansion. He has announced he will step down as an MP. He said he did not want to "distract" the party from its fight against Labour.
DAVID CHAYTOR: The Labour MP for Bury North claimed almost 13,000 of taxpayers' money for a non-existent mortgage. He is to pay back the sum after continuing to submit 1,175 bills for months after the loan was paid off. Admitted an "unforgivable error".
MARGARET MORAN: Her expenses claims – including a 22,500 bill for treating dry rot at a property in Southampton (she is Labour MP for Luton South, 200 miles away) – were described by the Prime Minister as "totally unacceptable". She has since repaid the amount.
ELLIOT MORLEY: Suspended from the Labour Party and sacked as the Prime Minister's climate change envoy after claiming 16,800 for mortgage interest on a loan which had already been paid off. He is repaying the money but referred himself to the Parliamentary sleaze watchdog.
HAZEL BLEARS: The Communities Secretary was already in the Prime Minister's sights after telling him: "YouTube if you want to." She claimed for three different properties in a year then wrote out a 13,322 cheque to the taxman for apparently evaded capital gains tax.
TONY MCNULTY: Under investigation by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, John Lyon, after claiming for a home in his Harrow constituency – which was being lived in by his parents while he resided at a separate home in Hammersmith.
JACQUI SMITH: One of the original advocates of "flipping" after being found to have designated a room in her sister's London house as her main home – allowing her to claim full allowances on her family home in her Redditch constituency. She also claimed for a bath plug and porn.
SHAHID MALIK: Forced by Gordon Brown to step down as justice minister after failing to declare on the register of ministers' interests the financial benefit he received by being charged rent below the market rate on his constituency home in Dewsbury.
SIR PETER VIGGERS: A senior Tory source said Mr Cameron was "furious" about Sir Peter's expenses and presented him with an ultimatum: do not stand again or be stripped of the party whip. Sir Peter's claims included 1,645 for a floating "duck island" for his pond.
Labour peers suspended
TWO Labour peers caught up in the "cash for amendments" affair last night became the first members of the upper chamber to be suspended in more than 350 years.
Voting was unanimous to bar Lord Truscott and Lord Taylor of Blackburn until the end of the Parliamentary session.
The pair were found guilty of breaching the Lords' code of conduct which requires members to "always act on their personal honour".
They were found to have offered to try to change the law in return for money.
The last member of the Upper House to be suspended was Viscount Savile, who was barred in 1642 for siding with King Charles I.
The move follows the resignation on Tuesday of Commons Speaker Michael Martin – the first case of a Speaker being forced out since 1695.
Attorney General Baroness Scotland last night warned peers of the "constitutional enormity" of the move.
Chairman of committees Lord Brabazon of Tara said: "
Personal honour remains the cornerstone of the House's code of conduct. Lord Truscott and Lord Taylor of Blackburn have not, we believe, acted on their personal honour."
The controversy was triggered by a newspaper investigation which claimed Labour peers had told undercover journalists that they were willing to amend a bill in return for money.
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