The notion that citizens can only oust their local MP once every five years, regardless of what that MP might get up to in the meantime, would be laughable, were it not the case. To take only a recent example: when Patrick Mercer was caught apparently soliciting payment for raising issues in Parliament last July, the lapse was sufficiently egregious for him to feel he must resign his party whip. But his constituents had no such option and Newark is stuck with Mr Mercer until May 2015 whether they like it or not.
It was the revelations over MPs’ expenses in 2009 that propelled the “right to recall” to the fore. So much so, in fact, that, the following year, both the Tory and Liberal Democrat election manifestos promised to introduce one, and the commitment was written into their subsequent Coalition Agreement. With the exposé of Mr Mercer – itself just the latest on a growing list of lobbying-related scandals – only adding grist to the mill, the draft Bill published shortly before Christmas was more than welcome.
The Tory half of the Coalition is having second thoughts, though. As The Independent reports today, a tussle in the “quad” at the heart of the Government could see the right-to-recall Bill dropped from the Queen’s Speech. Given that this is the last such speech before next year’s election, parliamentary long grass beckons.
By all accounts, there are two causes for the reversal. One is the ever-restive Conservative backbenchers. With Anne McIntosh and Tim Yeo both recently deselected by their local party, the prospect of the voters, too, gaining more powers of dismissal is causing shivers of apprehension that could plunge the Tory high command into yet another internecine battle.
The other question is one of campaign strategy. Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives’ election guru, wants to “knock the barnacles off the boat” ahead of 2015. That means focusing relentlessly on crime, the economy, and the like, and avoiding anything so tedious as constitutional reform or so tawdry as parliamentary corruption. Right to recall fails on both counts.
Neither is sufficient reason to put off much-needed reform. There are risks here, not least that right-to-recall powers might be misused by vocal minorities with a grudge. But such concerns are allayed by the details proposed. A by-election would be triggered only if 10 per cent-plus of locals agreed, and the conditions under which such a petition could be opened would be closely circumscribed. Only if the House of Commons voted to do so, or if an MP were sent to prison, would the process be set in motion.
The Coalition’s term of office is littered with constitutional changes promised and either thrown out or abandoned. From proportional representation to redrawn boundaries to Lords reform, all efforts at improvement have fallen foul of special-interest groups, short-term politicking or both. The absence of a mechanism to sack an MP is not only one of the more glaring flaws in our system, it is also one of the easiest to resolve. Yet while the current situation continues, it contributes to the sense of powerlessness draining public engagement with politics. The Liberal Democrat half of the quad must push hard for the Bill’s inclusion in the Queen’s Speech. And the Prime Minister and Chancellor must rethink their priorities.