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25 July 2018updated 20 Sep 2018 9:10am

Will the right of recall ever be used?

The case of Ian Paisley Jr illustrates the formidable barriers.

By Stephen Bush

The Recall of MPs Act of 2015 is an interesting bit of legislation, because it is a rare thing: an act of parliament that was designed not to be used.

The right to recall your MP early is one of those constitutional fads that was briefly in vogue in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties towards the end of the Noughties, and as a result a commitment to introduce the right of recall was included in the 2010 Coalition agreement.

The problem with the ability to recall your MP early is that while you can make a strong theoretical case for it, in practice, the moment you go about working out how to introduce such a right, it becomes clear that it is a very silly idea. Set the bar for recall too high, and you have a theoretical right to recall. Set it too low, and you have a recipe for political chaos and for the capture of democratic institutions by narrow and vested interests.

It’s a lot like the recent calls for Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn to expel errant MPs Anne Marie Morris and Jared O’Mara respectively: while it is understandably irksome that the worst sanction a party leader can bring on an errant MP is to remove the whip, you don’t have to think very hard for very long to realise why this would be a truly terrible power to give the leader of a party: they would be able to use it to remake their parliamentary party as an essentially supine body, which would have dire implications for accountability. Parliament already does a bad enough job of holding the executive to account as it is.

And so it is with recall. Take, say, the question of whether or not you should vote to expand Heathrow. Speaking personally, I think expanding Heathrow is an environmental folly and a political misstep, and we should be reducing, not increasing, the number of flights that go through the airport. However, I also think that MPs should have the ability to vote in the way they believe is in the national interest, not because they fear ten members of the local Residents’ Association will have the power to force them into a by-election. And, equally, you don’t want a situation where marginal seats are continually re-fought because a political party can trigger a re-run simply with the signatures of its own activists.

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But when you set the bar of recall too high to avoid vested interests or partisan capture, in reality what tends to happen is you set it too high to be used.

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That’s essentially why, when the House of Commons constitutional and political reform committee were tasked with looking at issue of recall in full, they recommended that the Coalition write the idea off as an errant brainfart and abandon the proposal. (I paraphrase slightly, but that was the general thrust.)

But the government essentially accepted a lot of the fears about the dangers that a low bar could have, which is why the 2015 Act is close to toothless. The hurdles to recall being used are very high: the MP in question must either be given a custodial prison sentence, suspended from the House by the Committee on Standards, or found to have made false or misleading expenses claims for recall proceedings to even begin. Then to unseat the MP in question, ten per cent of their constituents must sign a petition to trigger their recall within six weeks. 

In practice, it is difficult to imagine many circumstances in which these hurdles can be overcome. Take the sanction of Ian Paisley Jr, the DUP MP for North Antrim. Paisley has been found to have accepted hospitality of the Sri Lankan government, failed to disclose the interest and then lobbied on the behalf of the government. He has been suspended by the Committee on Standards, which means that recall proceedings will be brought. But the path to recall is not clear: to trigger it, opponents would have to collect more than 7,500 signatures. For context, his nearest opponents in North Antrim, Sinn Féin, only got 7,878 votes. While it is plausible that recall could be triggered, it is not especially likely, and this is in circumstances where the MP has been clearly found to have behaved badly, in a constituency where his opponents are considerably more politicised and well-organised than that of most MPs. In practice, the United Kingdom doesn’t really have a right of recall as the barriers are so high – and that’s probably a good thing, all told.