Cameron's abandonment of the right to recall shows the death of "the new politics"

The constitutional transformation promised by the coalition in 2010 has entirely failed to materialise.

When David Cameron became prime minister in 2010, he promised to pursue "a new politics" of democracy and transparency, aimed at removing the stain left by the expenses scandal. A major feature of this would be constitutional reform. The Coalition Agreement committed the government to introducing a new power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election when an MP was found to have engaged in "serious wrongdoing" (provided at least 10% of constituents signed a petition), to funding 200 open primaries, targeted at seats which had not changed hands for decades, to creating a "wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation", and to introducing directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities.

Nearly four years on, not one of these promises has been met. The independent-mindedness of Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, selected by an open primary in Totnes in 2009, convinced Cameron to strangle the idea at birth; his recalcitrant backbenchers blocked House of Lords reform, and just one English city (Bristol) voted to create a directly-elected mayor after a notable failure by the PM to sell the benefits of the policy to the public. Now, as today's Independent reports, he has abandoned plans to introduce a power of recall for MPs, despite promising to do so in both the Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement. As Lib Dem party president Tim Farron said on Today this morning, there is no "good excuse" for this volte-face. The most likely explanation appears to be that it would serve as a distraction from the Tories' core agenda (one of Lynton Crosby's "barnacles") and harm Cameron's standing among those MPs in danger of falling victim to democracy.

The 2010 Conservative manifesto said:

Our People Power manifesto will give local people the direct power to recall MPs found guilty of wrongdoing without having to wait for a General Election. Conservatives will empower local people to cast a vote of no confidence in their elected representative and bring an end to the concept of the ‘safe seat’. This proposal will make MPs directly answerable to their constituents over the whole of a Parliament – not just every five years.

How the Right to Recall process will work:

The recall process will begin with the filling of a notice-of-intent-to-recall petition, to be signed by at least 100 constituents and submitted to the local returning officer.

Once registered, a recall petition can be circulated within the constituency, petitions for the recall of MPs must accumulate signatures equal to 10 per cent of the local electorate

Any petition that crosses the signature threshold within 90 days would trigger a by-election.

But as Farron commented, "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."

Whatever ambition Cameron once had to be a tranformative prime minister, capable of restoring trust in the political system, is now unambiguously dead. And, as in the case of his crude abandonment of environmentalism, you are left to ask: did he ever believe in it to begin with?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg at a press conference to mark the creation of the coalition on 12 May 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.