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No, the news about Patrick Mercer isn't good for Cameron - since it raises the issue of the right of recall

By Paul Goodman
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Mercer Patrick Feb 2012As readers of the site (and much of the country) are well aware, David Cameron isn't universally popular among Conservative MPs. But amidst a competitive field I would have had no hesitation in nominating Patrick Mercer - until his resignation of the Tory Whip earlier today - as the man most likely to try to sneak the Claus Von Stauffenberg memorial briefcase into Number Ten.  Asked what the Prime Minister's biggest mistake has been, the Newark MP has been reported to have replied: "Being born".  He also said - perhaps on being challenged to say what he really thought - that Cameron is "a most despicable creature without any redeeming features", adding, for the avoidance of doubt, "I loathe him".

The bad blood between the two men goes back to, and possibly beyond, Cameron's sacking of Mercer from the front bench.  Little wonder, then, that a leadership loyalist has been texting journalists with the words: "Newark: Conservative gain".  But I wonder if Number 10 really will be "cracking open the Cava", as Iain Martin puts it in the Daily Telegraph (the paper is slugging it out with Panorama over which one of them has forced Mercer's resignation).  It remains to be seen what the Newark MP has or hasn't done wrong.  But if Cameron's view is that it's right for Mercer to resign the whip, what will he say if asked whether he should resign the seat?

Ten or even five years ago, the right of recall was an idea that hadn't yet found its time.  But the expenses scandal forced the following pledge into the Coalition Agreement: "We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10% of his or her constituents".  But Cameron will not want a by-election in Newark, which Mercer won from Labour in 2001, and Ed Miliband may not either - even though Labour won it from the Conservatives in 1997.  Neither leader can presume that UKIP wouldn't win such a contest.

Despite that Coalition Agreement pledge, there is no means by which voters themselves can "force a by-election".  But I'm not convinced that's the end of the matter.  The sense that the Westminster establishment is denying voters what they want is very dangerous for the mainstream parties - especially if it can be argued that they've done so by means of a stitch-up.  The Coalition's response to its own pledge has been to introduce a draft bill which gives MPs a decisive role in triggering any right to recall ballot. (Zac Goldsmith has been very critical of this.) The Government isn't saying much about its progress other than it needs time to get the bill right, will be publishing more details and "will legislate when Parliamentary time allows.”

The Editor of the Daily Telegraph is tweeting about the right of recall in the Mercer case - not a good sign for Number Ten.  In short, whatever the facts may turn out to be in this particular case, David Cameron is not generally in a good place about the right of recall.  It's also worth remembering that TV or newspaper "stings" rarely target one MP only: they usually cast their snares more widely to maximise their chances of success - so this story may run turn out to run further and wider.  A last word on Patrick Mercer: before entering Parliament, he served his country in the armed forces and was decorated for gallantry. Whatever he has or hasn't done since, that should be remembered.


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