It was the visit to Eastleigh that changed my mind about the right of recall. The notices tacked up on front doors – sometimes sealing letter-boxs, to prevent material coming through them – read: "NO MORE ELECTION LEAFLETS, PLEASE, or NO LEAFLETS. I AM NOT VOTING, or variants on that theme (often less polite ones). In short, the Eastleigh by-election reminded me how much voters detest by-elections – or, more particularly, the political and media circus that comes with them, together with the doormat snowdrift of election literature. The case against the right of recall is that unrepresentative minorities will be able to throw out an MP – a classic example is higher tuition fees in a seat with a large student population.
It would certainly be wrong for minorities in constituencies to be able to hold majorities to ransom. But the key to avoiding this is to get the mechanism for recall right: the correct trigger for a petition, plus voters' hatred of by-elections, ought to be enough to see off unrepresentative challenges. The Government's draft bill on the right of recall proposed two different means. First, the MP in question should have been found by the courts "to have engaged in serious wrongdoing", in which case a petition signed by ten per cent of voters in his or her seat could trigger recall or, second, MPs themselves could vote for a recall petition to be opened in a particular case.
How would this model apply to the case of Patrick Mercer? There may be a police investigation into the Newark MP as a result of his conduct. (This morning's Daily Mirror refers to the Bribery Act.) But it is possible to believe that with the calling of a general election only days away in April 2015, Mercer will still be a sitting in the Commons and drawing a salary. Will his constituents really be content with such an outcome? And shouldn't they be able to petition for recall if the Committee on Standards and Privileges concludes that he has broken Parliamentary rules? I believe the respective answers to these questions are no and yes – especially since Mercer, by declaring that he won't stand at the next election, has effectively conceded that he is at fault.
The Government's position on the draft bill is that it needs "to take the time to get this right. We will be publishing more detail about our proposals and will legislate when Parliamentary time allows.” But the Coalition Agreement promised "early legislation", and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Ministers simply want to kick the whole matter into the long grass – and, furthermore, that the draft bill's conclusions were roughly in the right territory. If the Commons endorses a Committee report concluding that an MP has broken Parliamentary rules, and ten per cen of voters in his constituency sign a petition for recall, there should be a by-election – in Newark or anywhere else.