Not out of the mire
Oh dear! Just when parliamentarians thought they might be scrambling out of the mud, a new volley of sleaze allegations hits Westminster.
So should the response be a bill to allow easier removal of tainted MPs and peers? The idea of a "recall" procedure was in the Coalition Agreement which promised:
"We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10% of his or her constituents."
Well, it's not that early....and the idea of recall makes a number of MPs rather queasy.
Quite a number, particularly in marginal seats, fear that they could face a constant guerrilla challenge from rival candidates, permanently agitating for their removal on any pretext that could be cobbled together. Hence the wording of the Coalition's proposal: "Where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing."
This would rule out, for example, an attempt to recall Nick Clegg for joining the Coalition and ditching his commitments on student loans, or to recall an MP for supporting gay marriage, or opposing an EU referendum, or even accepting the closure of a local hospital. And it wouldn't be possible to sack an MP who was failing to turn up to parliament, or the constituency.
Under this system, an MP would only face the possibility of recall if first convicted of some serious offence, presumably by the courts or by the Commons Standards Committee.
A petition of 10% of their voters could then unseat them - so their opponents would have to gather 7,000-8,000 signatures in most constituencies. This would answer the situation which occurred a couple of times in previous parliaments, where a discredited MP lingered on, sometimes for several years, before slinking quietly away at a general election.
But, say the critics, the system relies on a Commons committee opening the way for local voters to act. And what if that committee decided to protect some popular establishment figure, or even protect a vital vote for a beleaguered government? In the 1970s, remember, one of the vital votes which sustained James Callaghan's minority government belonged to John Stonehouse, who was eventually convicted of fraud after having attempted, Reggie Perrin style, to fake his own death. He would come to the House after spending a day in the dock at the Old Bailey, to vote for the government....
So, they argue, recall is too important to be left to the Westminster establishment. The scenario I've outlined would certainly be a test for the new lay members of the Standards Committee, who're supposed to be outside the cosy parliamentary bubble. Like a Victorian miner's canary, they're supposed to keel over if the air in the committee becomes noxious with favouritism or special pleading. Is that safeguard enough?
The radical Tories, like Douglas Carswell, who've championed recall, don't think it is. They argue that the petition should come first and should simply trigger a re-run of the election in their constituency. Let the local party decide whether to re-adopt the sitting MP, let the sitting MP decide whether to stand as an independent if dropped by them, and let the local voters take the final decision.
And give no role to any committee of the Westminster Great and Good. (The Carswell tendency, by the way, like the idea of electing, rather than appointing, the Standards Committee.)
Ooo-err. Tensions between these two rather different ideas of recall could make passing a bill pretty interesting. It's not hard to imagine a serious backbench uprising, not least because any measure identified with Nick Clegg seems to attract trouble. And this is the kind of measure which can turn the mildly dyspeptic backbench critic into a committed enemy, if they see it as a direct threat, or as a stick with which their opponents will be able to beat them.
There are different issues with peers - they gain entry to the House of Lords by virtue of a writ of summons which confers membership until death. One option is the revival of the Steel Bill - David Steel's modest package of tidying-up reforms, which includes provision to remove peers convicted of serious offences - it was passed by the Lords in the last session, but was never debated in the Commons.
The Conservative backbencher Dan Byles (fifth in the annual ballot) is going to have a pop at getting the bill through, but this might be rather too weighty an issue for the private members' bill system. But you never know. Alternatively, the government may produce a bill of its own, or stir the issue of errant peers into a bill on recalling MPs.
Of course this is just one facet of the problem...there is a bill mooted to create a register of parliamentary lobbyists and the Speaker is looking hard at abuses of All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs).
But many in Westminster regard the most toxic issue of all as being party funding - which is why a cross party group has floated a draft bill to sort out the system. I'll try to meander through these topics in the next couple of days.