Voters are clamouring for independent candidates to challenge MPs caught up in the Commons expenses scandal at the next election.
A survey published today discloses that almost 80 per cent of electors believe non-party candidates should stand against MPs caught behaving "unethically". More than half of voters – 53 per cent – said they would "seriously consider" voting for an independent and 63 per cent believed the presence of more independent backbenchers in the Commons would strengthen democracy. Three Tory backbenchers have said they will not contest the next election and several Labour MPs are expected to be barred from standing again. However, dozens of MPs accused of milking the expenses system will face the voters in the election which is likely to take place next spring.
The ComRes survey suggests they could be in danger of losing their seats to unaligned candidates who manage to capture the public mood of anger at MPs. The poll found that 78 per cent of people wanted independents to stand against MPs who had submitted "unethical" claims.
The scandal took a fresh twist last night when the whistleblower who passed the information on to The Daily Telegraph was revealed as John Wick, a former SAS officer. Mr Wick claims he was passed the data by a source in the Commons, but refused to reveal whether he had been paid by the paper.
Yesterday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said that the systematic humiliation" of MPs was threatening Britain's democracy. Dr Williams said the issues raised by the expenses scandal were grave, but that "many will now be wondering whether the point has not been adequately made: the continuing systematic humiliation of politicians itself threatens to carry a heavy price in terms of our ability to salvage some confidence in our democracy".
Ian Gibson, the Labour MP who claimed expenses on a flat where his daughter was living, was referred to the party's "star chamber" yesterday, which will decide whether he should be deselected as a candidate. He has said he is ready to stand down in Norwich North if voters want him to quit.
Celebrities could mount high-profile challenges to sitting MPs. Esther Rantzen, the television presenter, has said she would be "80 per cent certain" to stand against Labour's Margaret Moran, who claimed £22,500 for treating dry rot at a home 100 miles from her Luton South constituency while Lynn Faulds Wood, the television consumer campaigner, said she is considering running for a parliamentary seat.
Phillip Oppenheim, a former Tory minister, is threatening to try to unseat the Tory Andrew MacKay, who resigned as David Cameron's parliamentary aide over his "unacceptable" claims.
Independents won two of the 646 parliamentary seats at the last election – Richard Taylor in Wyre Forest and Dai Davies in Blaenau Gwent. Dr Taylor, who has held his Worcestershire constituency since 2001, said he was delighted at the upsurge of support for independents.
He is preparing an advice booklet for people considering standing for Parliament and said: "We need a government with a small majority. If you had an appreciable number of independents, it would keep ministers on their toes because no one knows which way we are going to vote."
Martin Bell, who served as an anti-sleaze MP between 1997 and 2001 after ousting Tory Neil Hamilton, said the expenses furore had made the ground more fertile for independents. He has refused to rule out standing against cabinet minister Hazel Blears at the election and said: "It's always hard to stand against the main political parties. There are no inherited or traditional votes – no one votes for you because their grandfather did."
Jonathan Bartley, from think-tank Ekklesia, which commissioned the ComRes survey, said: "We see the growth in independents as part of a wider process to break open the political system." The Jury Team, an umbrella group for independents, said it aimed to field a candidate in every constituency at the general election. It already has a full slate of candidates in place for next month's European elections.