The Westminster gentlemen's club is dead

Sweeping changes to the way Parliament is run, announced last night, spell the end of the Westminster club in which Members of Parliament regulate themselves.

The Speaker Michael Martin will not be the only victim of the avalanche triggered by the scandal over MPs' expenses. So will the old boys' network, rules and structures which have been exposed as totally inadequate in terms of meeting the standards expected in the 21st century.

The reforms were outlined by Gordon Brown at a Downing Street press conference after agreement in principle with other party leaders at a meeting chaired by Mr Martin.

Admitting that the current system was more reminiscent of the 19th century, the Prime Minister said: "Westminster cannot operate like some gentlemen's club where the members make up the rules and operate them among themselves. "I believe that the keystone of any reform must be to switch from self-regulation to independent external regulation," he said.

The change will excite constitutional experts and historians but for good reason. Independent regulation of MPs has never been contemplated because Parliament is the nation's sovereign body. It will have to formally surrender its own power to the proposed new Parliamentary Standards Regulator.

Legislation will be approved by this autumn to give the new body statutory force. The belated clean-up will abolish the Commons Fees Office, which has been revealed by the leaked details of MPs' expenses in the past two weeks as positively encouraging MPs to milk or even abuse the system.

It will end the Speaker's role as head of the administrative side of the Commons. His other two main functions, chairing the Commons proceedings and being Parliament's figurehead, will remain the same when Mr Martin's successor is chosen.

For years, there has been simmering criticism of a network of secretive committees, some chaired by the Speaker, with sketchy agendas and minutes. If all but a clique of senior MPs can't find out what goes on, there's little hope for the public.

The expenses controversy has shone an unflattering light on the dark corridors of power. "The old gentleman's club is dead," said Labour's Paul Flynn, one of 23 MPs to sign a motion of no confidence in Mr Martin.

Sir John Trevor: The one that went before

Sir John Trevor was dismissed as speaker in 1695 after being found guilty of "a high crime and misdemeanour". His offence merited the description. The City of London had asked Sir John if he would push through the Orphans' Bill on their behalf, and the speaker agreed to do it if they paid him 1,000 guineas. Sir John resisted calls for his defenestration before succumbing to the popular will. A powerful Protestant voice, he had spent much of his time in Parliament impeaching Catholic lords. When he died, aged 69, in 1717, his fellow Welshman Thomas Pennant described the epitaph in the Chapel of Clifford's Inn as "wise in its brevity". It read: "Sir J.T., M.R., 1717".

Amol Rajan

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