LONDON – Britain's opposition leader forced another lawmaker from the Conservative Party's ranks for claiming a floating "duck island" in his garden pond as a parliamentary expense — the latest casualty in the scandal over the misuse of public funds.
Opposition leader David Cameron demanded the retirement of Peter Viggers after Britain's Daily Telegraph reported he had charged taxpayers for a floating oasis protecting his ducks from urban foxes. The item was among gardening expense claims exceeding $46,000 — enough to buy a home in Viggers' Gosport district southwest of London.
The Telegraph also detailed the expenses of Ruth Kelly, a former member of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Cabinet. The ex-transportation secretary charged thousands of dollars for flood damage to her house despite having an insurance policy, the newspaper said.
Public anger over such disclosures has put pressure on Britain's leaders to call early elections — a scary prospect for tainted lawmakers. It is not just the extravagance but the details that are dragging politicians down, said Julia Clark, the head of political research for the polling firm Ipsos MORI.
"People assume politicians are corrupt and naughty, but a lot of this stuff is illegal and immoral," Clark said. "When you hear about ducks and the moats and the chandeliers and the KitKat bars, it makes it more real."
Britain's ruling Labour Party, far behind in recent polls, has the least enthusiasm for an election. With the economy in crisis and Brown's popularity ratings waning, the prime minister has little reason to call an election before next year, when he must do so under law.
Also, the Labour Party is deeply in debt, and the scandal has threatened its ability to replenish its coffers. Some of the party's most generous donors have been quoted by the Observer newspaper as saying they would withdraw their lavish support, worth millions of dollars, to protest lawmakers' claims for items like patio heaters and bathroom plugs.
"If this happened in business or any other walk of life it would lead to prosecution," Moni Varma, a wealthy rice importer, was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
June elections for the European Parliament will offer the first snapshot of the damage. The far-right British National Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party, which advocates withdrawal from the European Union, stand to capitalize on voter discontent.
Those parties could do especially well in European parliamentary races, because votes are allocated on the basis of proportional representation. That means a vote for a fringe party would not be wasted, even if that party is weak in a particular district — an appealing idea to voters interested in snubbing one of the major parties to protest the abuses.
Meanwhile, the major parties are rushing to show the public they've learned their lesson. The Conservatives, the largest opposition Party, has launched an internal investigation into all 150 of its legislators. Brown has said that any Labour lawmakers found guilty of misconduct will be dumped from the party's slate.
So far, the most prominent casualty has been House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin, who resigned under pressure from lawmakers who blamed their predicament on his lack of will to reform the institution.
Interim rules were put in place to quash the abuses, including a halt to reimbursements for mortgage interest that no longer existed. Brown has called for outside regulators to administer the new system, in what would be an end to centuries of parliamentary sovereignty over its own affairs.
Other radical steps are also being considered, such as replacing Britain's present electoral system, which favors the two major parties, with one that apportions seats in the House of Commons based on each party's share of the national vote.
Bill Jones, a professor of politics at Liverpool Hope University, described the times as "a moment of choice and possibility" for British politics.
"We don't know where it's going to end," he said.