David Cameron has walked away from a pledge to allow voters to expel MPs who have lost the confidence of their electorate from Parliament, The Independent has learnt. The Prime Minister had previously backed the move to let voters “recall” MPs who had been sent to prison or found guilty of “serious wrongdoing” by their colleagues.
The policy was first proposed after the expenses scandal. It was in the Conservative manifesto and formed part of the Coalition Agreement with the Liberal Democrats.
But Mr Cameron and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, have refused to include the legislation needed for it to become law in the last Queen’s Speech before the election – in effect killing the policy.
Senior government sources told The Independent that the plans had come before the quad of senior Liberal Democrat and Tory ministers. But despite efforts by Nick Clegg to get the measure included in the final legislative session before next year’s general election, the proposal was vetoed by the Conservatives. Mr Clegg is understood to have told his MPs about the decision on Tuesday. Under the plans – which had already been watered down – MPs could face a “recall” motion if they had been sentenced to a prison term or judged guilty of “serious wrongdoing” by the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee.
Then, if more than 10 per cent of the MP’s constituents signed their approval, a by-election would be held. Supporters say the move could have resulted in the removal of MPs such as Patrick Mercer, who was filmed soliciting payment for raising issues in Parliament last July.
He was forced to resign the Conservative party whip but will continue to represent Newark until May 2015. The policy could also have applied to the Labour MP Eric Joyce, who was found guilty of assaulting a Tory MP and several researchers after going “berserk” in a House of Commons bar. He resigned the Labour whip but is still an MP.
Recall was backed by all three main political parties in the wake of the last election, in part to assuage public anger over the expenses scandal.
“At the moment there is no way that local constituents can remove an MP found guilty of serious wrong-doing,” the Tory 2010 manifesto stated. “That is why a Conservative government will introduce a power of ‘recall’.”
The policy is deeply unpopular with Conservative MPs, however, and Mr Cameron is understood to fear a backbench rebellion over the legislation, which would be politically damaging in the run-up to the next election.
Concerns have been fuelled by the way in which two long-standing Conservative MPs have already been de-selected by their own Tory Associations despite opposition from Conservative headquarters.
But the move has provoked a furious response from the Liberal Democrats, who have seen their ambitious constitutional reform agenda gutted over the past three years.
“This was an important step which we fought for in the Coalition Agreement to try and restore some level of trust in politics,” said Tim Farron, the party’s president. “We wanted to make sure MPs were accountable to their voters in between elections. Instead the Conservatives appear to want to be protected from the electorate. It is about self-preservation. It sends a message to the electorate that ‘we don’t trust you. We think you might do things which we don’t like’. The only reason for blocking this is a lack of genuine commitment to democracy and a lack of trust in the electorate.”
Graham Allen, chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which scrutinised the proposal, said he was not surprised it had been dropped.
“I think it was an idea whose time came and went,” he said. “If it had been done straight after the last election in the wake of the expenses scandal then I think it would have got cross-party support.
“But time has moved on and I’m not sure it would now be supported by very many MPs. The last thing the Conservatives want in the run-up to an election is to be having a divisive debate about this when they can be talking up their successes in Government. It’s just realpolitik.”
But the campaign group 38 Degrees said the U-turn would further undermine public trust in politics.
“Politicians complain that people don’t care about politics, but this Government has constantly chipped away at our ability to have our voices heard,” said David Babbs, its executive director.