It’s not a register we need to keep politics honest. It’s a free press

Despite what Nick Clegg thinks, a statutory regulator of lobbyists would not have prevented Patrick Mercer's own spectacular folly

British politics is cleaner than it has ever been and further reforms are unnecessary. Nick Clegg, not for the first time, is guilty of knee-jerk politics. A statutory register of lobbyists may well be a good idea. Indeed, it is such a good idea that the lobbyists themselves have been begging the Government to regulate them for three years. Since, in fact, the Government was formed on the basis of a Coalition Agreement that promised to legislate for a compulsory register.

What a joy for lovers of paradox. The lobbying industry has been lobbying the Government – unsuccessfully – for a statutory register designed to curb its activities. Thus simultaneously demonstrating its own impotence and the Government’s hypocrisy. And then along comes Patrick Mercer, the Conservative backbencher, and a line of lords a’leaping, and the Deputy Prime Minister suddenly remembers that he promised the register and that it is one of his few specific ministerial responsibilities.

Yet a statutory register would not have prevented Mercer from his own spectacular folly. If Mercer did not think of checking whether the bogus lobbyists – who were actually journalists working for the Daily Telegraph and BBC’s Panorama – were members of one of the lobbying industry’s three respectable trade associations, he was hardly going to check whether they were on a statutory register.

In any case, do we really want to legislate to protect parliamentarians from the consequences of their own stupidity? Mercer and the three lords concerned say they didn’t do it, but if other MPs and lords were minded to accept cash for pressing causes, then it is probably better for the ethical quality of our legislators that they should be found out. Once again, Lord Justice Leveson please note, adventurous and unrestrained journalism is a better guarantor of democracy than statutory legislation.

Yet we are still left with the apparently unsatisfactory arrangement by which Mercer has resigned from the Conservative Party but remains as MP for Newark for another two years, at which time he has said he will stand down. The three peers have been suspended by their parties, Labour and Ulster Unionists, while their cases are investigated.

But if peers are found to have breached the rules, and we must assume that these particular peers have not, they cannot be slung out of the House of Lords – not even if they are guilty of criminal offences. Thus Jeffrey Archer continues to have a say in the making of our laws, despite having served a jail sentence for perjury and perverting the course of justice. 

Hence the popularity of other proposed reforms that would help “clean up politics”, according to their sponsors. Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP who is fizzing with ideas, nine out of 10 of which are bad ones, wants to bring in a “recall” power by which voters can sack MPs at any time.

I sympathise with him when he complains that Clegg is trying to distract attention from another promise on which the Coalition has reneged. But it is a cheap populist promise that should never have been made. Clegg has a habit of making foolish promises that look good in opposition and then being denounced for ditching them when he realised what a bad idea they were in government.

The “recall” power is wrong in principle. Imagine an MP of a governing party elected by a small margin, of just a few hundred votes. After a year, the opinion polls have turned against the government and the MP’s opponent organises a petition to have him or her “recalled” – Carswell suggests it would have to be signed by 10 or 20 per cent of the constituency’s voters. It is a simple historical fact that government almost never gain seats at by-elections. The last time that happened, 31 years ago yesterday, was in Mitcham and Morden, when the sitting Labour MP, Bruce Douglas-Mann, defected to the SDP and, in a fit of principle, resigned to fight the seat again in his new colours. His reward was to be turfed out by the voters of south London in favour of the Tory candidate, Angela Rumbold.

To make a recall power work, there has to be some trigger other than a petition, and Clegg has suggested that it should be a finding of wrongdoing by a parliamentary committee – but, as Carswell points out, this would look as if “Joe Bloggs MP is not being ‘recalled’ by local people, but sent away by other politicians”. I have a better idea, which is to do nothing.

The same goes for Carswell’s advocacy of open primaries to select the main parties’ candidates. It is not a bad idea. On the contrary, it is an attractive, democratic idea. But it has bad effects as well as good. It would give an advantage to candidates with money or who are already famous. And it would not have all the benefits claimed for it. It is claimed that it would raise turnout, but they have primaries in America and turnout there is even lower than in this country.

As so often, the response to the suggestion of wrongdoing in high places is to note – loudly – that it supports the case for what you thought all along. In my view, it supports the argument for reforming the House of Lords. But the main response to this scandal ought to be to praise the journalists involved for helping to keep our politics as squeakily clean as it has long been.

From the Prime Minister’s point of view, there are other unsatisfactory aspects of the present lobbying scandal. Mercer, who wishes David Cameron hadn’t been born, has succeeded not only in destroying his own political career but in further damaging the Conservative Party’s image. But then, that is Cameron’s own fault. The statutory register of lobbyists may have nothing to do with the Mercer case, but it is a promise that Cameron made and which he has not yet kept. And he is the one who predicted that lobbying would be the “next big scandal waiting to happen”. This isn’t a big scandal, but it is bad news for him and he has only himself to blame.