Boris Johnson quoted Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day in his final address to the Commons as prime minister.
“‘Hasta la vista, Baby’ – thank you”, he signed off to MPs last July.
The quotation, literally “until the view” in Spanish, is usually taken to mean “until we meet again” – a hope which Johnson wholeheartedly embraces. He makes no secret that he would like, and feels he deserves, another go in Number 10 Downing Street. Citing Schwarzenegger conjured up his other catchphrase: “I’ll be back.”
At the moment though, Mr Johnson should be more pre-occupied with another of Arnie’s greatest hits: Total Recall. Recall, in the sense that parliament meant it in the Recall of MPs Act 2015, may well be about to cut short his time as a member of parliament. For now, at least.
The Act was passed in the wake of the expenses scandal, when it proved impossible to remove members from parliament, even after they were sent to prison. The recall process has proved a quietly efficient way of dealing with wrongdoers, although not all of them have paid the ultimate price of losing their seats.
Under the Act recalling, i.e. unseating, an MP can be triggered for three reasons only:
1. If an MP is sent to prison for any length of time, once the appeals process is exhausted. (A sentence of over 12 months automatically kicks an MP out)
2. When the House votes to suspend an MP for 10 sitting days or more on the recommendation of the Standards Committee
3. If an MP is convicted of fiddling expenses and allowances under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 – even with a non-custodial sentence
When one of these conditions is met, the speaker informs the “petition officer” in the relevant constituency. In practice the “petition officer” is the council official who acts as returning officer at election times. They must then set up polling stations, open for six weeks, where the petition can be signed (in person or by post). If 10% or more of the local electorate sign it, the MP is recalled and a by-election takes place. The deposed individual is not barred from running for re-election.
So far, half a dozen MPs have been caught up with or faced the threat of a recall petition. Of these one is still serving and has been re-elected at a general election. Two are out of parliament and three are still uncertain what their fate will be.
In 2018, Ian Paisley Jnr, the DUP MP for South Antrim, was suspended for 30 days for failing to declare hospitality from the Sri Lankan government. But the recall petition in his constituency fell 444 votes short of 10%. No by-election was triggered and he kept his seat.
In early 2019 Fiona Onasanya, Labour MP for Peterborough, was sentenced to three months for perverting the court of justice over speeding offences. Labour removed the whip from her. 28% backed the recall petition. She did not contest the by-election.
The same year the Conservative MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, Christopher Davies, was found guilty of false expense claims. 19% voted for recall. Davies was allowed to stand again as the Conservative candidate in the subsequent by-election, but he lost to the Lib Dems. The Tory Fay Jones won it back in the 2019 general election.
Claudia Webbe, the MP for Leicester East, was convicted of harassment of her partner’s female friend. Labour removed the whip and say she should resign. Her conviction was upheld on appeal but the sentence was reduced, avoiding prison. So a recall petition was not triggered and Webbe continues to sit as an independent MP.
Margaret Ferrier, MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, is currently going through the process following a breach of COVID travel restrictions. She was convicted and given 270 hours of community service at Glasgow Sherriff Court. In the next week or so, the Leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt, will call a debate, when the Commons is expected to uphold the 30-day suspension recommended by the Standards Committee. That would trigger a by-election for the SNP at a difficult time. The party has already said it will campaign against Ferrier if she stands again as an independent.
The Standards Committee membership overlaps with the Privileges Committee which is now investigating Boris Johnson for contempt of parliament through lying. Four Conservative MPs and the SNP member argued for a lighter, nine-day suspension for Ferrier which would not have meant a by-election. But in the end the whole committee backed the tougher measures.
Senior Conservatives still predict that the Privileges Committee will duck a furore if they find against Johnson by recommending a suspension of less than 10 days. But Ferrier’s punishment augurs badly for him if he is to avoid a challenge in his Uxbridge constituency. Their two offences are separate matters, of course, though both relate to breaking the pandemic rules which the prime minister introduced. Committee members are said to be less sympathetic to Mr Johnson than to Ferrier, who is a single parent with a home far from Westminster.
It is possible that Mr Johnson may prefer to face recall rather than stay on as MP for Uxbridge. He has already agreed to fight the next election there as their candidate. Based on current polls, Electoral Calculus predicts that he would lose. They give Labour an 83% chance of taking the seat.
Some MPs caught in controversy choose to fall on their swords and resign rather than go through the recall process – the Conservative MPs Neil Parish and, eventually, Owen Paterson are recent examples. If sanctioned Johnson might prefer to stand down immediately, citing the “good chap” principle. This would give him several personal advantages. Donald Trump style, he could claim political victimisation to stir up his supporters. He would have until the next election to earn as much as possible without having to declare his earnings to parliament.
He could also find another winnable seat. This week John Howell, who has served as MP for Henley since he took over from Boris Johnson, announced that he will not run in the new version of the constituency following boundary changes. Oxfordshire (South East) remains a safe seat with a 65% chance of being held by the Conservatives. Boris and Carrie Johnson own property in the area. It had been thought that Nadine Dorries’ Bedfordshire constituency might make a comfortable berth for him if, as expected, Johnson promotes her to the House of Lords. On current predictions though, Labour are favourites to capture this seat.
Some politicians from the radical right would like to use the recall process as a regular feature of political combat – as impeachment seems to be in danger of becoming in the United States. Zac Goldsmith proposed that just 5% of local voters should be able to trigger a recall for any reason. But the act passed by parliament deliberately reserves it for specific wrongdoing. It gives MPs teeth with which to police their own standards, at a time when public trust in them is low.
There are already more cases pending. Following a media sting, Scott Benton, Conservative MP for the marginal seat of Blackpool has referred himself to the standards commissioner for alleged misuse of his parliamentary email address.
Until now, media coverage of recall petitions has been quiet. This is largely because it is an offence to report on people signing the petition or to speculate on its outcome while it is taking place. The Electoral Commission has suggested some changes but neither the government nor MPs have taken them up. Those constraints on reporting are likely to be tested to the limit should Boris Johnson end up starring in his own Total Recall.