This article first appeared in The Telegraph on Monday 20th October 2014
One of the greatest problems that Westminster faces is the collapse of trust in politics, and politicians. Party leaders, MPs, ordinary voters – all agree that the bond between rulers and ruled has been stretched almost to breaking point. Now, our representatives have the chance to do something about it.
In the wake of this newspaper’s exposure of the expenses scandal, it was widely recognised that a mechanism was needed for voters to punish those MPs who fall short of the standards they expect. Yet it has taken more than five years for a Bill containing such a system of “recall” to come before the House of Commons. Worse, the details of the proposals are an insult to the electorate’s intelligence.
The initial idea behind recall was that a by-election would be triggered if a set proportion of an MP’s constituents petitioned for their removal. But then the plan fell into the hands of Nick Clegg. What emerged was a Bill – which has its Second Reading tomorrow – that only applies if an MP has been sentenced by the courts or suspended by the Commons, and refuses to resign. In other words, in the rare circumstances when voters can invoke this right, they will merely be applying a ceremonial boot to the backside of an MP who is already on the way out of public life.
The stated justification is that a proper recall system might be hijacked by interest groups, or MPs’ political enemies. But the evidence from other nations is that voters are intelligent enough to see through such self-interested behaviour: it injects a little healthy fear into the system, rather than ushering in a reign of terror.
For anyone looking for an example of why the public has lost faith in its rulers, the way in which Mr Clegg and his allies mutilated the recall proposals would be an ideal starting point. It was telling that Douglas Carswell, in an article for this newspaper explaining his reasons for defecting from the Tories, cited this betrayal of principle, rather than concerns over Europe or immigration, as the final straw. Ukip’s new MP has long campaigned for such reforms – and it was highly encouraging that, when Mr Carswell raised the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions last week, David Cameron appeared to share his concerns.
Thanks in part to the efforts of Michael Gove, the chief whip (who is firmly on the side of the angels in this matter), the Tories are now expected to permit a free vote in the debate next week. We urge Labour to follow suit. That would give backbenchers of all parties the chance to listen to Zac Goldsmith, the most dogged champion of true recall, and amend the Bill in line with recall’s original principles. In doing so, they would not just make a bad measure better, but go some way to winning back their constituents’ trust.