Update: Heidi Allen has announced that she will no longer stand at the next election. This weekend, Anthony Browne wrote about her confusing political odyssey:
As I pound the streets of South Cambridgeshire where I am the Conservative candidate, the most common reaction I get from voters is “How did that happen?”. (That, at least, is an edited version to keep things family-friendly for Spectator readers). It is usually accompanied by a liberal dosage of decidedly unparliamentary language and the sort of words that if I repeated would lead to me being accused of inflaming passions in politics. But the passions among the public are already inflamed and the issue is this: voters in South Cambridgeshire overwhelmingly elected a Conservative MP in the 2017 general election, giving her more than 52 per cent of the vote, but they are now represented in parliament by a Liberal Democrat. The voters overwhelmingly want to support the government. But their MP is repeatedly voting against it. As a result, they are not happy: "Why don't MPs do what they are elected to do?" is a common cry of frustration.
In fact, since South Cambridgeshire constituency was created, voters have always elected a Conservative to represent them, and in the last election the Lib Dems came third behind Labour. with only 19 per cent of the vote. Yet they now control the seat.
Heidi Allen, the MP in question, has been on a very public political odyssey, having changed political allegiance four times so far this year. She started off as a Conservative, resigned to join the Independent Group which then became Change UK, she then resigned from that to join the Independents and is now a Lib Dem. Quite a few of her constituents expect her to have moved on to Labour by the time of the election.
The question “how did that happen?” is usually followed by the statement: “there should have been a by-election.” The narrow, legal response to this is that in the UK parliamentary system, you vote for the individual whose name is on the ballot paper, not for the party itself. That is legally correct but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of voters put an X in the box of their preferred party, not preferred person.
They then expect that person to be loyal to the party they were elected to represent. That is why independent candidates almost always lose parliamentary elections. However high profile they are, they rarely command a personal vote of more than a few thousand. The angry incomprehension of South Cambs voters is no doubt repeated in the constituencies of other defecting MPs around the country. It is entirely understandable.
So I have a modest proposal: when an MP resigns from the party they stood for at election, voters should be able to recall them to force a by-election.
It would actually be very easy to do and would only require a tiny amendment to the Recall of MPs Act 2015, which was championed by Zac Goldsmith.
Under that Act, if an MP is imprisoned for less than a year, suspended from Parliament for more than ten sitting days or found guilty of fiddling expenses, then they will face a by-election if more than ten per cent of voters sign a petition calling for one.
All the government needs to do is add a fourth reason to trigger a recall: that an MP has resigned from their party. It should not be triggered if the MP is expelled from the party, as giving party leaders the power to effectively force recalcitrant MPs to face by-elections would be open to abuse.
The recall provision has worked well. It has been triggered three times and been successful twice: in Peterborough (where Labour MP Fiona Onasanya was imprisoned for lying over driving offences) and in Brecon and Radnorshire (where Conservative MP Christopher Davies was convicted over his expense claims).
It was also triggered when Ian Paisley Junior was suspended from Parliament, but his critics did not get enough names to force a by-election. I am not the first to call for this – so did Sarah Wollaston when she was a Conservative MP, but has clearly changed her mind when she defected to the Lib Dems without resigning from Parliament, leading to accusations of hypocrisy.
The recall of MPs act has has played a useful role in helping restore trust in democracy. But extending the recall provision to the seeming countless MPs who have resigned from their party would do far more. And as anyone canvassing knows, faith in democracy needs all the help it can get.
Anthony Browne is Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire