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29 January 2019

Who’ll win the Peterborough by-election? Well, there might not even be one

Fiona Onasanya may well still be an MP at the end of 2019.

By Stephen Bush

Election season in Peterborough? Fiona Onasanya, the constituency’s MP, has been given a three-month sentence after being found guilty of perverting the course of justice by attempting to avoid points on her driving licence. It sets up a knife-edge contest in a constituency where 61 per cent of voters backed Leave in 2016 and which Labour won by just 607 votes.  

But the chances of an immediate by-election – or any by-election at all – are remote. Although MPs are automatically expelled from parliament if they are sentenced to more than a year in prison, there is no such provision for shorter sentences, and while Labour has removed the whip from Onasanya and called on her to resign, it has no power to compel her to do so. Onasanya has told her former Labour colleagues that she intends to remain as an MP.

That means that the only provision to trigger a by-election is the 2015 Recall Act, which sets up formidable barriers to any successful recall. 10 per cent of Peterborough’s electorate – that’s a little over 7,000 people – must sign a petition calling for her to be recalled, within the six weeks allotted to any recall campaign.

Although there will be multiple locations in the constituency for them to do so, and electors have the option to vote by post, that represents a formidable obstacle to any recall effort. In addition, the recall petition can only start once the 28-day period in which Onasanya can appeal has ended, meaning that efforts to recall can only begin on 26 February 2019. The further six weeks provided under the act means that any recall petition would, at the absolute earliest, end on 9 April 2019.

Assuming the threshold was met by then, Onasanya’s seat would fall vacant. Labour, as the defending party, would then have three months to trigger the contest. When possible, the party tends to hold by-elections to coincide with the local elections (scheduled 2 May 2019), when it benefits from extra media coverage – and the insurance that if Peterborough goes badly, Labour will be able to point to other results elsewhere as a more positive sign.

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But it means that in practice, any by-election in Peterborough is a long way off – if it happens at all.

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