In the 2019 general election, Conservative Peter Bone held his seat in the Northamptonshire constituency of Wellingborough with more than 60% of the vote. Four years later, although there hasn’t been another election, he is no longer an MP. Bone, who was found to have bullied and exposed himself to a member of his staff, is one of the few examples of a member of parliament being thrown out in a recall.
The recall is a mechanism introduced in 2015 to deal with elected representatives who misbehave in office. While recalls have a longer pedigree in some parts of the world, they are a relatively new phenomenon in the UK. Bone is only the fourth MP to lose their seat via recall and only the fifth MP to face a recall petition (the very first was survived by Ian Paisley Jnr in 2018).
Bone could still return as a local MP since his recall will be followed by a by-election in which he has the right to stand as an independent. He may believe he has a chance given the strength of his 2019 result. But the reality is that recalls generally end careers.
The most recent recall involved Scottish National Party MP Margaret Ferrier, who lost her seat in July 2023. This followed a lengthy suspension for breaking pandemic lockdown rules by travelling on a train while knowingly infected with COVID. She chose not to stand in the byelection that followed her recall.
Bone’s recall was also triggered by a lengthy suspension, in his case imposed after a parliamentary investigation found that he had hit a member of his staff on multiple occasions and exposed himself to him on another. Bone has denied the allegations.
How a recall happens
A recall petition is automatically launched when an MP is suspended from the House of Commons for longer than ten days. Any shorter period of suspension carries no further sanction.
The decision to suspend an MP must go through the House of Commons but this is usually a rubber-stamping exercise that comes at the very end of an investigation or even a police probe (as in the case of several other MPs who have been recalled).
Bone’s six-week suspension was agreed without debate in late October after the publication of the investigation into his conduct.
Once a recall has been triggered, local voters have the chance to sign a petition to have their MP removed. They can sign in person at multiple locations around the constituency or remotely by post or by appointing a proxy. T
he process is effectively very similar to a general election except that rather than having just one polling day, recall petitions stay open for weeks. Bone’s constituents had between November 8 and December 19 to sign.
When a recall petition is triggered, organisations, such as political parties, can register as official campaigners either for or against a recall. As in election contests, there are spending limits and a need to provide an account of what was spent. In this case only the Labour Party appears to have registered.
If more than 10% of registered voters sign the recall petition, the MP loses their seat. Bone has been removed because that threshold has been reached among Wellingborough’s 78,000 registered voters.
Another byelection headache for the Tories
It is easy to see why some opposition parties might campaign for a recall. The seat could be winnable. It could be a chance to harry the incumbent party. It is all part of a build up to a future general election contest.
Of course, an MP can avoid a recall petition by simply resigning. Former prime minister Boris Johnson did precisely that in 2022 when facing a lengthy suspension for misleading the house. His former colleague Chris Pincher’s resignation meant the same. In cases such as these, constituents get a byelection whether they wanted one or not.
Bone’s constituents have decided that they want to be the next to hold a byelection. The only thing that can stop them now is if the general election is imminent – and it only becomes imminent with a firm date.
Given the timing of the recall petition, it is almost certain that Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives will have to endure another pre-general election vote triggered by the misconduct of one of his team. Even in a safe seat, that’s a fate they will have hoped to avoid.
December 20, 2023