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Recall of MPs (Change of Party Affiliation)

Volume 679: debated on Wednesday 2 September 2020

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable the recall of Members of the House of Commons who voluntarily change their political party affiliation; and for connected purposes.

This Bill seeks to update the Recall of MPs Act 2015 with a fourth recall condition: any MP who voluntarily leaves the political party they represented upon their election to the House of Commons becomes subject to a recall petition. Such a petition would occur by Mr Speaker giving notice to a petitions officer, who would in turn give notice to the parliamentary electors in the relevant constituency, after which a petition would be open for eight weeks. If at the end of that period at least 10% of the eligible electors had signed that petition, the seat would be declared vacant and a by-election would be held. It is important to note and understand that the petition acts as the safety mechanism to preventing a needless by-election; if our constituents view the action of crossing the Floor as principled and just, the threshold would not be met and the onerous task of holding a by-election would not be undertaken. But should the threshold be met, a by-election would be called and the Member who had been recalled would be able to stand.

This is the second time this House has been faced with such a debate. In 2011, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) proposed a similar course of action. Sadly, it did not make progress, but had it done so, I fear that the 2019 parliamentary arithmetic would have been radically different. In the course of my remarks, I hope to be able to build on my right hon. Friend’s points and to respond to some of the counter-arguments made all those years ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who is now the Father of the House.

If any Member has had the pleasure of visiting my constituency, they may well have caught sight of the septic tank cleaning lorry that carries the words “full of political promises” on its side. The lorry neatly encapsulates the all-too-prevalent view that political promises are not worth the paper they are written on and that politicians are not to be trusted.

Every generation of politician makes this claim. It was certainly made in 2011, and I am making it nine years later, and I think that I can argue with a greater degree of certainty that it is the case. Last year, 17 Members of Parliament crossed the Floor, leaving the parties they were elected to represent. That was more than had done so in the 16 years previously, and not one of them consulted their constituents. In effect, that disenfranchised the 1.2 million electors across their 17 seats for the duration of that Parliament. Although we are not here to follow every instruction from our party’s leadership—and I should know—resigning from the party we were elected as a representative of to campaign for policies diametrically opposed to the ones we were elected to support is clearly a breach of the spirit of the contract between ourselves and our constituents. That unwritten bond between ourselves and our electors is the reason I am proposing this Bill.

I do not presume to judge those who have crossed the Floor. Their actions were based on their own principles and their own values. Previous Members of great repute have done so, including Churchill. However, my ask is that, through this Bill, we can no longer take a decision that ignores our constituents and the value of their vote. In recent years, only a handful of Members have done the right thing by their constituents. Whether one feels strongly about it or not, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, who decided to join the UK Independence party in 2014, still held by-elections and at least gave their constituents a say. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, this

“should be the rule, not the exception.”—[Official Report, 23 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 318.]

I am all too aware of the counter-arguments to this proposal. We are, as Burke argued, elected as representatives, not delegates; nor should we be bound by party constraint. This is a valid argument. I wholeheartedly believe that the true value of an MP is that the voice of their respective constituency is made in Westminster and not the other way round. But an argument made in the 1770s, when political life and party structures were so radically different, must surely be updated and modernised in the 2020s.

For example, the role of political parties in election campaigns has steadily progressed and evolved over the generations. We may all believe that we are elected due to our own brilliance, but I would urge caution that Members let this thought run away with them. [Interruption.] I can see that Scottish National party Members might agree with that premise. We are selected by a political party. Our literature is embossed with the emblems of parties. We are supported by volunteers who share our values and often hold party membership. Above all, we pledge our support to our party manifesto detailing our policies and philosophy. Owing to the Representation of the People Act 1969, our electorates are greeted in every voting booth across the country with our names, our party names and our party logos. In short, we benefit significantly from the role that the party plays in each and every one of our elections.

Parties are therefore often more visible than the candidate, from their leaders to their Cabinets and their manifestos. They act as a magnet to either attract or repel voters to or from to their cause. So when a candidate who has campaigned using those logos, promoting that manifesto and supporting that leader switches sides, they are doing so against everything they told the thousands of voters they connected with during the election. This is not promoting democracy; it is degrading it. Some may well disagree with that point, but it is only reinforced by the fact that Members of this place, on both sides of the House, do not stand as Independents.

Not only is there domestic precedent for those who have held by-elections when crossing the Floor of this Parliament, but there is an example at the international level. New Zealand, to combat what was colloquially known as waka-jumping, implemented the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act 2018, which sees Members of Parliament who choose to leave their party automatically expelled from Parliament. Some 40 other countries have similar measures in place within their Parliament. So if we were to take this step we would not be alone as a parliamentary democracy, nor, I believe, would we be at odds with our electorate, who would be grateful to have a say in such matters.

The House knows that I truly value independence in this place. It allows each and every one of us to vote with our conscience and in the interests of our constituents and our country. This Bill does not seek to crush independence or enhance political parties, but it does seek to build the trust and transparency in this place and in its Members. It is for that very reason that the Bill is structured so that it cannot be used against Members by party Whips. Only by a Member voluntarily crossing the Floor can the recall petition be set in motion.

As I said, I sincerely hope that this is the last time such a Bill has to face this House. In 2015, many Members from across the House came together to support the noble Lord Goldsmith’s amendment to the Recall of MPs Act 2015, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). This suggested that there would be total recall, with the ability, if 5% of constituents signed a notice calling for it, to trigger a recall petition that would then, in turn, trigger the threshold. I say to him and others who gave their support that if their objections rest with my proposals regarding the threshold, then let the House amend that by raising the threshold.

I have made my case. I have fulfilled my promise to my electorate. I hope that this House might recognise the benefit that this Bill could have and that we can restore the confidence in this, the mother of all Parliaments.

In rising to oppose my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), I want to begin by absolutely embracing his noble intent and by saying that I am quite confident that if I were the new Member for Totnes or for South Cambridgeshire, or any other seat where Conservative voters are absolutely furious about the behaviour of their previous MP—and rightly so—I would be in their position of needing to move this Bill or a similar one.

I also say to my hon. Friend that I agree about the primacy of the voter. My goodness, why did I do all the things that I have done about leaving the EU? I believe in the primacy of voters, and it is absolutely right that I supported the noble Lord Goldsmith’s Bill—I tweeted out the links earlier. I am in favour of full recall—I prefer to avoid total recall—albeit on a threshold that must be high enough to avoid vexatious political activity. However, I would like to have full recall, by which I mean recall without conditions.

I even agree with my hon. Friend—of course I do—on the importance of party. He is right: none of us was elected to this Parliament as Independents. There are two Independents and they both have their own circumstances. An article by me in The Sun set out, in the course of 2019, the crucial importance of people knowing the programme for which they have voted, so that they get the Government that they wanted— so I agree with him about the importance of party. I am very clear that we owe a duty to our party in fulfilling our duty to our voters. Carswell and Reckless were absolutely right when they went to their electors, but they did so in circumstances slightly different from the ones that I will come to.

But what I really want to ask the whole House to consider is this: we also have a duty to consider in our deliberations what happens not just when things are going right, or perhaps when things are only going slightly wrong in narrow and foreseeable circumstances, but when things go terribly wrong in circumstances that we perhaps have not foreseen? What do we do when things go terribly, terribly wrong?

The problem with my hon. Friend’s Bill is that it establishes the principle that we are here contingent on our membership of party. I know he has said that his proposal would not apply if we lost the Whip for some other reason, but the problem is that in saying so, he has conceded that if we were to be forced to a recall petition and a by-election because we had lost the Whip through our actions, that would be an unacceptable transfer of power to the party Whips and a compromise of our ability to vote as our conscience dictated was best for our constituents and the nation.

I will not quote Burke—we all know Burke. I am going to recommend Auberon Herbert’s “A Politician in Sight of Haven”—a far better essay. This is the circumstance all of us face. We must balance our conception of what is best, our constituents’ and our party’s. That is the problem, and, of course, in conceding that we must not allow Members to be forced to a by-election because the Whips do not like how they voted, in a sense my hon. Friend begins to go down the road that I foresee.

What I want to say to the House is this: imagine a major governing party in the United Kingdom captured by a charismatic and radical leader, buttressed by ruthless and ideological advisers accomplished in the political arts. Imagine that party with the leader and those advisers hellbent on dramatic change to our institutions of the British state—[Hon. Members: “Never!”] Of course—as colleagues say, “Never!”—it is inconceivable that such a thing should happen in the Conservative party, but I want to apologise to Members opposite, because I do now need to trespass on matters that are properly for the Labour party, and in a speech in which I can take no interventions, I wish to do so lightly. I will leave many things unsaid that might strengthen my case to avoid reopening old wounds. Many Members will be able to bring to mind the things to which I refer. Many things happened last year that ought not to have happened.

I count among my friends Gavin Shuker, the former Member for Luton South from 2010 to 2019. He has given me this quote, which I will read in full:

“In effect this would be a huge shift of power—not to our constituents—but to the respective Party Leaderships. Imagine the chilling effect on debate; the incentive for a Member to be bullied out of their own party; we have to ignore our own history to become an advocate of this approach. And not ancient history—recent history. When I chose to sit as an Independent, it was on an issue of integrity; like many of my colleagues I could not advocate putting a man so universally ill-suited to leadership, into 10 Downing Street; unlike many of them, I chose to embrace the consequences. I knew full well that at the next election I would likely not be returned and in the end that’s exactly what happened. The same people who elected me chose not to return me; the system worked—and all without this Bill.

MPs in this House are not delegates”—

I will allow him that—

“we are representatives. The knowledge that, when a party changes beyond all recognition around a Member, that Member may choose to resign the Whip, is an important safety valve in our system; and a good bit of political hygiene. 

This proposed legislation is rooted in a popular argument which at first seems very clever. But it’s not very wise.”

Those are the words of my friend Gavin Shuker, who of course was the convenor of the Independent Group for Change.

As I came into the Chamber, I said to one of my colleagues that I was going to make this argument and he replied, “Well, imagine that a Conservative leader became ‘woke’ and decided that to speak of free enterprise was a hate crime; we would need a lifeboat”, and indeed we would. But what I want to say to the House is this: I am afraid that we do need to consider very serious contingencies. If one wished to replace a party of government with another because it had so changed beyond recognition, perhaps because a segment of society genuinely feared for their lives if it came to power—that is what happened—one would have to smash the party with sustained pressure and velocity, with meticulous plans and detailed knowledge of every Member of Parliament and when they would leave their party, what they would say, what they would do and with whom. One would really need to know what they were going to do, and they would need time: they would need, for example, not to be driven to European elections for which they were not ready.

I think all the people who left the Labour party were heroic in what they did. They were seeking to ensure that this country had a fit Opposition and an alternative party of government, and it was necessary for them to have the scope, the space and the freedom to still sit in this House and have this platform in the national interest to try to recreate a viable Opposition.

As it happens, those who chose to stay in the Labour party and rescue it have won. I congratulate them because we do need a good Opposition, but in conclusion I want to say that surely this House is about nothing if it is not about restraining power. Of course my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes makes a good argument, and of course if I was in his situation I might well make the same argument, but if we really want the public to be able to recall us, let us really give them the power, without conditions, on a high threshold—high enough to avoid vexatious political activity, because, goodness knows, after all we have been through, we need political stability.

My goodness, we have seen this Parliament, this place and this constitution not just working at 100% but perhaps, as the rules have been stretched and perhaps broken, we have seen our constitution operating at 110%, and what a dread thing it has been. As somebody who has been subjected to the full wrath of the state at least three times—Members will know which votes I mean—my goodness, I do not want to be the person who leaves their party on principle and then in their constituency faces the might of that state trying to procure signatures on a petition. That is among the reasons for my speaking on this.

I have spoken for long enough, and what a privilege it is to be able to put this on the record, but it is because of the dread power of the state, or the dread power of a party gone wrong, that I say to my hon. Friend and to his voters, “Please bear with us, because what we are saying here is not that you cannot get rid of your MP; all those defectors lost their seats—they all lost their seats. We are not saying you won’t be able to get rid of your MP; we are asking you to be patient, because if we have learned anything over the past year or so it is that this amazing constitution that we have, and this amazing, tiresome, wearisome, awful place that is so brilliant, is capable of protecting our freedoms in this nation.” And to Members of Parliament I say, for all that we are all elected on a party ticket and for all the duties we owe to the public via our party, it remains absolutely essential to the freedom and health of this nation that we are able to walk away from our party and seek to destroy it—although I can tell my Whip that I have no plans to do so.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23)

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.


That Anthony Mangnall, Anthony Browne, James Sunderland, Sally-Ann Hart, Gareth Davies, Greg Smith, Christian Wakeford, Jonathan Gullis, Mr William Wragg, Bob Stewart, Chris Skidmore and Chris Loder present the Bill.

Anthony Mangnall accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 January 2021, and to be printed (Bill 173).