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LONDON (Reuters) - The most senior official in the lower house of parliament apologised to the nation on Monday for an expenses scandal among MPs that has prompted growing calls for an early general election.
"Please allow me to say to the men and women of the United Kingdom that we have let you down very badly indeed," Speaker Michael Martin said in a speech to a packed chamber.
Sidestepping calls to quit over his handling of the crisis, Martin said he would meet party leaders in the next two days to discuss reforms to a system which saw claims for everything from bathplugs and biscuits to cat food and tennis court repairs.
"We must all accept blame and to the extent that I have contributed to the situation, I am profoundly sorry," said Martin, dressed in the Speaker's black robe.
Forcing Martin's resignation would be a constitutional landmark on a par with the abdication of a monarch or a U.S. president's impeachment, said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University.
"There is a reverence about the office ... a kind of mythology about it," he said. "It is the equivalent of an abdication crisis. There is no doubt we are in a pretty old whirlwind. We are going to remember this one."
Conservative MP Patrick Cormack likened the situation to the wartime debate in parliament that led to the resignation of the then prime minister Neville Chamberlain in 1940.
"What is at stake is the institution of parliament and its integrity," Cormack told the lower house after Martin's speech.
Earlier, Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for "root and branch" reform to defuse a scandal that has damaged all the main political parties but appears to be hitting Labour hardest after 12 years in power.
David Cameron, whose Conservative party is well ahead in opinion polls, urged Britons to campaign for an early general election, saying the removal of the Speaker would not be enough to restore parliament's authority.
Martin, a former metal worker and trade union official who grew up in a working class part of Scotland, blocked a debate over his future in parliament.
If ousted, he would be the first Speaker to be sacked since John Trevor lost his post for taking bribes in 1695. His departure would spark a by-election in his constituency in Glasgow and could add to calls for a national poll.
The Speaker is the highest authority in the lower house and represents the chamber to the monarch. His duties include keeping order during debates, calling lawmakers to speak and making sure they follow the rules of parliament.
Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker told Sky News: "Today's performance was terrible, frankly. I am afraid he signed his own political death warrant today."
An election is due by mid-2010 but Brown is expected to resist pressure to go to the polls with the country in its deepest recession since World War Two.
However, one of his own Labour MPs, said he thought Brown would have to cede to the demands because the public had lost confidence in parliament as an institution.
"I think we are going to have an early general election over this issue," Labour lawmaker Rob Marris told BBC radio.
Brown said he had been "angered and appalled" by disclosures about MPs' questionable and sometimes lavish expenses.
"There's got to be root and branch reform," Brown said. "I am hopeful that we can get a consensus ... to have a complete clean-up of the political system," he told Sky News.
Disclosures over MPs' allowances and public anger could favour fringe parties in local and European elections on June 4.
The British National Party, a far-right group opposed to immigration and the European Union, has seen support grow since the scandal broke, its leader told Reuters on Monday.
Cameron launched a drive for an early election, the second leader of a major party to do so.
"We are turning the campaign we had planned for these elections into the campaign Britain now needs: a campaign for a general election, to be held as soon as possible after June 4," he said. Experts said it was unlikely to lead to an early election.
"He might get signatures from Conservative activists and indeed from other people as well, and letters to the newspapers, but I don't think it will actually produce an outcome," said Wyn Grant, politics professor at Warwick University.
Editing by Dominic Evans