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UK

Darling caught up in expenses scandal

LONDON (Reuters) - Chancellor Alistair Darling apologised on Monday and agreed to repay 350 pounds after he became the latest minister to be dragged into a scandal over expenses claimed by members of parliament.

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaks on the BBC's "The Andrew Marr Show" in London May 31, 2009. REUTERS/Jeff Overs/Handout

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would not step down despite the furore and polls showing his Labour party faces a humiliating defeat in European and local elections this week.

Resisting calls from Conservatives for a national election, Brown said he had a duty to clean up the system and to get Britain through a deep recession before taking the country into an election.

“I’m staying on to do the job I need to do,” Brown told BBC radio when he asked if he could be persuaded to step down for the sake of his party.

Brown’s government has been battered by the expenses row and the worst recession since World War Two.

Darling apologised on Monday after overclaiming expenses on a property he owned, but said he did not plan to resign.

“I’m sorry about that, I unreservedly apologise. It shouldn’t have happened,” he said. The claim covered a period in 2007 when Darling was appointed finance minister and was moving into an official residence in Downing Street.

Asked about speculation that he might be replaced in a government reshuffle after Thursday’s election, Darling told television reporters: “It is up to the prime minister. He has got to decide the team he wants.”

Some aides say they have been urging Brown to put schools minister Ed Balls, a close Brown ally, into the Treasury.

VOTER BACKLASH

Voters are furious that many members of parliament have apparently milked the expenses system, claiming taxpayer funds for everything from hiring porn films to cleaning their swimming pools, at a time when ordinary people are having to scrimp.

All the main parties are involved but voters look set to punish Labour, the party of government since 1997, at European Parliament and local elections on Thursday.

A new Ipsos MORI poll on Monday showed Labour’s support sliding by 10 points to just 18 percent, level with the smaller opposition Liberal Democrats.

Forty percent of 1,001 people polled said they would vote for the Conservatives at the next national election which Brown must call within a year. That would give David Cameron’s Conservatives a commanding parliamentary majority.

The poll showed fringe parties such as the far-right British National Party and the anti-European Union UK Independence Party gaining at the expense of the major parties.

Ipsos MORI said dissatisfaction with the government was as high as it had been with the Conservative government during the Black Wednesday crisis in 1992, when financial market speculators attacked the British pound and forced it out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

A second poll found that all three main parties had been badly affected by the scandal, including the Conservatives.

Thirty percent of those questioned in a ComRes survey for The Independent said they would not support any of the three biggest parties if a parliamentary election were held now.

It put the Conservatives at 30 percent, 15 points down from last month, with Labour down four points at 22.

Two weekend polls suggested Labour could slip to an embarrassing third place in Thursday’s European election.

Additional reporting by Sumeet Desai, Matt Falloon, Peter Griffiths and Keith Weir; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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