David Gauke is MP for SW Hertfordshire and a member of the Conservative Treasury team.
The letter to the Daily Telegraph on Friday from 27 members of the 2005 intake of Conservative MPs, including myself, proposed that consideration should be given to introducing a ‘recall mechanism’ for MPs. It has stirred up a fair amount of debate on ConservativeHome and elsewhere, which was the intention, but it might be helpful if I expanded on some of the issues it raised.
David Cameron has spoken on a number of occasions, including this weekend, about how public faith in our political institutions is ‘draining away’. He is right and this will not end by us just hunkering down and hoping the mood will pass.
One of the reasons there has been a breakdown in trust is that we politicians appear to be a privileged class who live by different standards to everyone else. For example, once elected, we are effectively unsackable until the next General Election four or five years away.
For most people, a failure in performance, let alone probity, would jeopardise their employment in a much shorter timeframe. MPs may be suspended but, unless they are declared bankrupt or imprisoned for twelve months or more, their job remains protected for the rest of the Parliament.
Of course, there are good reasons why Parliament should not have the discretion to expel an MP. We MPs hold our position as a consequence of the decision of our constituents and it is an important democratic principle that only our constituents should have the discretion to remove us from that position. The electorate giveth and the electorate – and only the electorate – taketh away.
The proposal for a recall mechanism is an attempt at preserving this
principle whilst still addressing the public frustration at the
semi-protected position of MPs.
The US experience, where the recall mechanism is well established,
demonstrates that it serves a purpose but that it is only activated in
In California, for example, a recall mechanism has been in place since
1911. A recall ballot is triggered if the number of signatures
obtained from registered voters equals 12% of the number of votes cast
in the previous election. Once this threshold has been achieved, there
is then a straight Yes/No vote on whether the official should be sacked.
In the 97 years in which this recall mechanism has been available,
there have been 117 attempts to use it. But of those 117 attempts,
only seven succeeded in obtaining a ballot and of those seven, only one
was successful in removing an official – Governor Gray Davis in 2003.
Nor is California uncommon. In the 18 US states that have a recall
mechanism in place, in addition to the Gray Davis case, there has only
been one other occasion where a governor has been recalled (North
Dakota’s Lynn J. Frazier in 1921).
Why so few? First, as anyone who has attempted to organise the
nomination forms for multiple council candidates can tell you,
obtaining large numbers of signatures which are legible and contain the
correct name, address and electoral roll number is not quite as easy as
it sounds. To trigger a recall ballot for Gray Davis required 900,000
Second, and more importantly, the low level of success suggests that
the Californian public has been sceptical about vexatious recall
campaigns. Faced with a request to sign a recall petition or vote for
the dismissal of a specific individual, the US experience is that most
people most of the time use their power with care.
There is no reason to believe that the UK would be different. It is a
widely observed phenomenon that the public tend to have a higher
opinion of their own MP than they do of MPs in general. The
relationship between politicians and the public may be difficult at the
moment, but we politicians do still believe that our electorates are
essentially fair-minded, don’t we?
So when should a recall mechanism be available in the UK? Many of the
27 signatories to the Daily Telegraph letter would probably restrict it
to those occasions where the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee
determines that an MP has committed an offence serious enough to
warrant this sanction.
A petition would still be required but my view is that the threshold
for triggering a recall vote could be relatively small. A threshold
number of signatures of, say, 20% of the numbers voting in the previous
election (9,000 to 10,000 people in most constituencies) collected over
a maximum period of three months, seems to me to be more than
A more controversial proposal, albeit more in line with US practice,
would be to allow a recall ballot even where no disciplinary action has
been taken. Here, I would argue, the signature threshold should be
higher and more in the region of 40% of the numbers voting the previous
In these circumstances, it would be rarely used. An entirely vexatious
recall petition would have no chance of succeeding but one can imagine
constituency feeling running high enough to obtain the necessary
signatures. As a matter of academic interest, using the threshold I
have suggested, it would require 18,859 signatures to trigger a recall
ballot in Grantham & Stamford.
With these safeguards in place, many of the practical concerns raised about the proposal no longer seem very persuasive.
It has been suggested that this proposal is a gimmick or a knee jerk
reaction. But, as Daniel Hannan has pointed out, this idea ‘meshes with a series of other localist
policies aimed at making decision-makers more vulnerable to public
Many of the signatories to the Daily Telegraph letter were also
signatories to the Direct Democracy pamphlet published in 2005 which
argued for devolving power to an electorate increasingly shut out from
decisions which affect their lives. A recall mechanism for MPs is
entirely consistent with that agenda.
It may once have been a slogan of the far Left, but a new generation of
Conservative MPs is motivated by the words ‘Power to the People’. Only
by showing more trust in the public will we restore the public’s trust