On 4th May 2020, Conor Burns, a Conservative MP, resigned from government after a report from the House of Commons Committee on Standards found he had threatened to use his rights as an MP in a family financial dispute. Burns has a chequered ten-year history in Parliament, including an investigation into racist remarks and accepting all-expenses-paid trips from the authoritarian Kingdom of Bahrain. He has been known to be a loose cannon in the Conservative Party for years.
This is a clear-cut case of abuse of power. However, removing Conor Burns from Parliament is not straightforward, even if there was adequate political pressure. The process begins with a recall petition from the Standards Committee which must be signed by 10% of the MP’s constituents. If this is successful then a by-election is called, in which the recalled MP is eligible to run again. A recall petition would have been automatically triggered if Burns was suspended by the Standards Committee for more than 10 days, but he was only suspended for 7. Therefore, whilst he has resigned from the Government, he remains a Conservative MP.
It is important to note that the Conservative Party does not have a monopoly on this situation. Keith Vaz – a Labour MP until 2019 – resigned from his select committee position after the Sunday Mirror exposed that he’d slept with male prostitutes and offered to buy them cocaine. Vaz however remained as an MP. Peter Mandelson resigned a total of three times, twice in the midst of scandal. Each time, he left government but remained a Labour MP, then later returning once the media frenzy had subsided. Often, the public’s desire for blood is satiated by the resignation of the MP from committees or government, without the need for the party to sacrifice a vote in the Commons.
Parties don’t have much formal control over their MPs. Whilst many voters use a political party as a heuristic, voting more for party and national leader than local MP, MPs have a lot of autonomy. Party whips can reprimand MPs for straying from the party line, prevent them from being promoted to ministerial positions, or remove the whip entirely. However, whips can’t strip MPs of their seats.
As a result, parties are loath to withdraw the whip from anyone, shirking their duty to fully research and vet candidates. This isn’t just true for politicians involved in scandals whilst in office, it also goes for candidates who are elected despite skeletons in their past. This is evidenced by the story of Jared O’Mara who won the seat for Sheffield Hallam off Nick Clegg in a shock result in 2017. No doubt because his seat was a longshot, adequate research was not conducted before his election. It was only after he had been elected that his collection of homophobic and sexist tweets was uncovered. Voters trust political parties to indicate who they should vote for, but parties don’t take that responsibility seriously enough.
One solution to this particular problem would be to require MPs who run under the banner of a political party to face a recall petition if the party withdraws their support. The Labour Party would have been able to more quickly remove and replace Fiona Onasanya, who remained an MP for three months after being convicted of perverting the course of justice, during which she served a custodial sentence. A significan
t downside, however, would be greatly enhancing the power of the whips. If a whip could trigger a recall petition which could then eject MPs from Parliament, backbench rebellion would become much less likely. The Change UK rebellion in 2019 or Social Democratic Party split in 1981 would have been essentially impossible. The executive would become much more powerful, reducing government scrutiny.
The best solution is simple: parties need to take the quality of their candidates much more seriously. Firstly, short-list processes for MP selection need to involve more detailed research into a candidate’s past. Even candidates who aren’t expected to win a seat need to be properly scrutinised, the media would be essential in the need to hold parties accountable for this. Secondly, opposition parties have a role to play in policing each other. In 1997, after being implicated in the ‘Cash for Questions’ corruption scandal, Neil Hamilton, an incumbent Conservative, was defeated by Martin Bell, an independent, in a safe Conservative seat. Bell stood on an anti-corruption platform and received backing and organisational support from both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. Political pressure and ‘good-governance pacts’ are needed to force offending MPs’ parties to withdraw the whip and remove them in by-elections. The media also need to push disgraced MPs to leave Parliament entirely, rather than just ministerial posts.
In the case of Conor Burns, the whip should be withdrawn. He should resign. His constituency is a very safe seat, so the Conservatives should have little concern about replacing him. If he or the Conservatives refuse to cooperate, opposition parties should call for the House Standard Committee to issue a recall petition. They should then collectively select an anti-intimidation Independent to run against Burns.
Parties must regain their role as a ‘seal of approval’, tackling corruption and ethics issues before party politics. Each offending MP allowed to remain in post tarnishes the reputation of the party and Parliament as a whole. Public faith in government is vital in a democracy, and cases like Conor Burns’ add fuel to the populist flames. All major parties must act now to stamp out abuse of power.