Fiona Onasanya is in hot water again. After two trials, more than three weeks in prison and a failed attempt at an appeal, signatures will now be collected on a petition that could see her sacked as MP.
The Peterborough MP was first dragged into the courts after her car was caught doing 41mph in a 30mph zone in July 2017. She claimed that someone else was driving it. The first drawn-out trial at the Old Bailey ended inconclusively. Then, a retrial in December quickly found her guilty and sentenced her to three months. She was released after less than a month, and lost an appeal against her conviction last week.
Labour and the Conservatives are now both backing a petition to withdraw her as an MP, which opens for signatures on 19 March. To succeed, it must be signed by at least 10 per cent of eligible voters in Peterborough—about 7,000 people—by 1 May. Onasanya’s constituents will be allocated to one of 10 signing stations where they can add their name.
The first-ever recall petition, triggered less than six months ago against DUP MP Ian Paisley (who was suspended for failing to declare two holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government), failed after falling 444 names short. But in Peterborough, which is already a more high-profile case, both Labour and the Tories will be campaigning for signatures and so it is more likely that they will succeed. If they do, there will be a by-election in a close marginal that Onasanya won from the Tories in 2017 by just 607 votes. Both parties have already selected their candidates to succeed her.
If the mood on the high street is anything to go by, Onasanya is toast. Most people here haul her over the coals. Among residents walking down the paved road leading to Peterborough Cathedral on a Friday morning, there’s a rising chorus that “she lied”; “she behaved stupidly”, “atrociously”, “abominably”; “she’s not fit to be an MP”.
Barbara Willis, 66, said she would be first in the queue to sign the petition. “You can’t run the country from prison. She’s set a bad example. Anybody else would have just paid the fine. She had a clean driving license at the time, so it isn’t as if that was going to be taken away.”
Angela Barlow, 55, stressed that Onasanya “insisted on the lie, even after she was found out. That’s not someone you can feel you can trust.”
Mary, 34, a stay-at-home mum, said the MP had brought the city into disrepute: “She was still taking her salary while in prison”. While Paul, 62, said she had “not only lied consistently but tried to involve others in her deceit”. Neither wanted to give their full names.
But while most people will decry Onasanya’s actions, it’s not clear that they’ll go out of their way to sign the petition within a short space of six weeks. Oliver Greenwood, 32, who works at Tesco, said that in all honesty probably he’d probably only in sign it “if it was shoved in front of his face”.
Grace Minto-Sampson, 22, also doubts whether she’ll sign the petition. “It’s really upsetting, because it was a really big thing for Peterborough to elect a black woman from the Labour Party as its MP. It makes me not want to sign her recall petition, even though I don’t defend what she did.” In 2017 she voted for Labour in Sheffield, where she studies sociology at university, but said she would register to vote in Peterborough to support the party in a by-election.
Voters don’t blame Labour for the debacle, and say the case won’t affect whether they back the party next time round. Harriet Cooke, 25, a Peterborough resident who works as an intelligence officer in London, said that she will sign the petition and then vote for Labour in a by-election, “unless they put up some other horrible character”.
Ian Lavery, the Labour Party chair, said the party was already on the ground campaigning for the new Labour candidate, Lisa Forbes, and will actively support residents to trigger a by-election. “The people of this great city voted for a Labour MP, and that’s what they deserve.”
Perhaps the biggest danger for Labour is Onasanya deciding to stand as an independent in a by-election, a possibility she has not ruled out. The seat was so marginal in 2017 that a handful of votes could crown the winner, so a small trickle of votes from Labour to Onasanya could hand victory to the Tories. And Onasanya is not without her supporters. One is Mohammed Munir, 44, a court duty officer, who says he was in touch with Onasanya over a period of 18 months about his wife Maryam’s application to stay in the UK. Maryam, who is from Kashmir, was working as a schoolteacher when she applied for indefinite leave to remain. Her application was delayed and she lost her job because of her uncertain immigration status.
Onasanya “did everything in her power to ensure that it was dealt with”, Munir said. “She established that the school hadn’t rung the Home Office immigration advice line for employers to clear things up, even though they assured us they had.” Maryam’s application was successful. Munir now claims he may lead a one-man campaign against Onasanya being recalled. “Everyone is capable of making a mistake. She has a right to rehabilitation. She should be allowed to continue as MP, I feel very strongly about that.”