LONDON — The speaker of Britain's House of Commons apologized Monday for his role in the burgeoning lawmaker expense scandal, hoping to retain his office by pledging to lead efforts to restore Parliament to respectability.
Michael Martin's authority has been shaken by daily revelations that lawmakers used taxpayers' money for paying nonexistent mortgages, constructing swimming pools and other frivolous expenses.
Martin, a member of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's ruling Labour Party, has been criticized for ignoring warnings that the expense system needed reform -- and then trying to block publication of the claims.
In testy exchanges with angry lawmakers, Martin ignored calls for him to become the first speaker in 300 years to quit, ducking the issue by invoking parliamentary procedure to stall debate on a motion to oust him.
"Please allow me to say to the men and women of the U.K. that we have let you down very badly indeed," Martin said in an extraordinary moment in the Commons. "We must all accept the blame, and to the extent that I have contributed to the situation, I am profoundly sorry."
Britain's main opposition leader, David Cameron, said he will ask members of the public to sign a petition urging Brown to call an election as soon as possible, offering voters a chance to kick out lawmakers who've abused expenses.
While Cameron has been agitating for an election for months, his reasoning appears to have changed and his effort might strike a chord among a British public outraged over the scandal.
The final decision on an election rests with Brown, who must call an election by mid-2010 and is expected to wait until the last possible moment, hoping for the economy to revive. His Labour Party lags behind Cameron's Conservatives in opinion polls and is deeply in debt, meaning it has few funds for an election campaign.
Labour is considered likely to suffer most from the scandal, because it has failed to reform the expenses system during 12 years in office.
Newspapers reported that major donors to Labour have threatened to cut off funding in protest.
Anthony Bailey, who previously donated $110,000 to Labour and recruited other donors, told The Observer newspaper that he wouldn't support Brown's organization in future.
In response, Brown on Monday promised a "root-and-branch reform" of the expenses system.