Sebastian Payne

Alistair Carmichael could be the first test of recall

Alistair Carmichael could be the first test of recall
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Pressure is growing on Alistair Carmichael, the former Scotland Secretary and only Lib Dem north of the border, to resign his seat after an official investigation proved he lied about leaking a confidential memo during the election campaign. The SNP are aiming for him in today’s Observer, with deputy leader Stewart Hosie saying ‘Mr Carmichael has no credibility in continuing as an MP and in my opinion he should stand down’.

Arguably, this shouldn’t be a matter for his party or the Commons to decide any more. We now have parliamentary recall, a bill passed at the end of the last parliament to allow ordinary constituents to trigger a by-election. If Carmichael’s constituents feel unhappy about his behaviour, they should be able to instigate a by-election. But the watered-down version of recall we have ended up with — promoted by Nick Clegg — doesn't make it that simple.

The ‘Clegg Bill’ allows for a recall petition to be opened only if a MP is sentenced to a prison term or is suspended from the Commons for 21 days or more. If either of these criteria are made, a petition will be opened for two months. If ten per cent of eligible electors sign it, the seat would be declared vacant and a by-election would follow. The incumbent MP could stand in this by-election, although it’s unlikely that he or she would have much success.

Critics of Clegg’s Recall of MPs bill — most notably Zac Goldsmith, who attempted to pass his own beefed-up version — argued that a test of the law would anger the electorate when they discovered that MPs can only be removed in the narrowest of circumstances. But I doubt even the fiercest critics would have expected it to come so quickly.

I said the Lib Dem Recall Bill was a seedy little stitch-up, & that the first scandal would expose it. Please see Orkney & Shetland.

— Zac Goldsmith (@ZacGoldsmith) May 23, 2015

In the Carmichael situation, he has not committed a criminal offence so recall can not be activated using this clause. But the committee on standards may decide to suspend him from the Commons. At this point, he may decide to stand down to avoid the drawn-out petition procedure.

Interestingly, Goldsmith crunched the numbers after his recall amendment was defeated and just 9.5 per cent of Lib Dems backed his proposals, compared to all of the SNP MPs. I understand that Angus Robertson, the SNP's leader in Westminster, still supports Goldsmith's proposals for proper recall. Given that Carmichael held onto his seat with a 817 vote majority over the SNP, the Lib Dems will be keen to avoid a by-election at all costs — the party has declined to discipline him. Still, before the autumn arrives, the SNP could be one seat closer to total domination of Scotland and the Lib Dem could have fewer MPs than the DUP.