As the institution at the apex of our political constitution, the House of Commons needs to be self-policing. Despite the endless complaints of some reformers, the normal rules and norms of a modern workplace cannot be reconciled with its unique, democratic character.
Yet the legitimacy of self-policing requires that any institution entrusted with that responsibility actually polices itself. Failure to do so lends volume (if not necessarily strength) to demands for the imposition of external regulation.
Once such a regulator is set up, their writ will acquire a life of its own – even if, formally, their remit is strictly advisory. This is what has happened with the Ministerial Code, which is being turned by lazy journalists and opportunistic politicians into a hallowed text, the smallest breach of which can be dressed up as a resigning matter.
Thus, the best thing MPs could do to preserve their right to keep their own House in order is to… keep their own House in order. Which brings us to the question of Nadine Dorries.
Having announced her intention to resign “with immediate effect”, the Member for Mid Bedfordshire has, more than two months later, not done so – and claims she will not until somebody explains why she didn’t get a peerage. She thus continues to draw her parliamentary salary.
She has, however, stopped doing her job. Dorries last voted all the way back in April. Her role as MP for Mid Bedfordshire no longer even features in her Twitter (‘X’) byline, although her TV show and newspaper column do; the email given is for her agent, not her office.
This has, quite properly, caused outrage. If we take Dorries’ case at face value, she is leaving her constituents without representation for the most trivial, shabby, and self-interested of reasons. At least were she simply delaying the by-election to cause maximum political damage to the Government, there would be some trace of a higher motive.
But the growing consensus is that no such by-election will take place, at least not of Dorries’ volition. And given that the current recall rules don’t allow the voters of Mid Bedfordshire to precipitate a by-election in the absence of appropriate sanction from the House of Commons, as our editor noted earlier this month, there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
Or is there?
Unlock Democracy, a campaign group, has written to Daniel Greenberg, the Standards Commissioner, asking for an investigation. But he is understandably wary of the precedent this might set; there is for good reason a high bar for such interventions into the business of the House by officials.
Meanwhile PoliticsHome reports that Chris Bryant is working up a plan to disinter “an arcane parliamentary rule” – last employed in 1801! – to force Dorries’ resignation.
Now, I bow to nobody in my love of arcane parliamentary rules, especially with such an auspicious vintage. But there is no need to go digging for long-buried arcana to precipitate a by-election in Mid Bedfordshire. It can be done in just seven words:
“That Nadine Dorries be expelled this House.”
Yes, this seems to be yet another example of people staging a hunt for elaborate means of doing (or excuses for not doing) something which the constitution just allows them to do.
Whilst a rare sanction, expulsion is not nearly so arcane as whatever grail Bryant is questing for; it has occurred twice since 1945, most recently in 1954. There are no fixed hurdles before it can be attempted, it is simply a decision of the House – what Erskine May describes as “an example of the House’s power to regulate its own constitution”.
So the Commons could, in fact, rid itself of Dorries very easily indeed. Which leaves two questions: is it likely? And would it be wise?
As to the former, one can well imagine why it might not happen. For all the real outrage at her conduct, the Government might never screw its courage to the sticking place and inflict on itself what would probably be a painful by-election. It may also suit the Opposition to have her linger, further poisoning the Conservative brand, than force her out.
Yet there are also plausible political cases for both sides moving such a motion.
For Sir Keir Starmer, it’s an opportunity to precipitate a by-election in which Labour would almost certainly do well, and perhaps even win. If he wanted additional cover then Labour (or indeed an independent group) could set up an independent recall petition, with the Leader of the Opposition pledging to table a motion to expel if it reached the threshold.
For Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, there would be worse ways to restore his credibility as a new broom, after the debacle of Boris Johnson’s resignation honours, than decisive action against the Member for Lubang. He could even make a virtue of ensuring the voters of Mid Bedfordshire got the chance to choose a new MP, despite the likely drubbing the Tories expect. They might even appreciate it.
But whoever initiated it, it seems likely (at least to this author) that if such a motion were tabled, it would pass. It would be extremely difficult, given all they have said about her, for either party to actively vote to keep Dorries in post.
Which brings us to the question of whether doing any of the above would be wise.
There will be, quite rightly, wariness about breaking the seal on such a mechanism, which was in the past put to infamous effect to try and exclude Members from the Commons on political grounds; in the 1700s John Wilkes was expelled and re-elected multiple times. Some will worry about the precedent it might set, others that once MPs get a taste for it the threshold for wielding it will fall over time.
On the other hand, that something should be used judiciously does not mean that it should never be used. MPs’ use of expulsion is discretionary and not bound by precedent. But even informally, would the precedent of expelling an MP who quit their job without actually resigning be a terrible one to set?
In the course of decades of reforms, the Commons has never divested itself of the power to expel, nor (that I know of) has it been seriously proposed that it do so. There thus seems to be little dispute that this is a power the House ought to have – and thus, by extension, to use on occasion.
Moreover, inactivity sets its own precedent, and the availability of expulsion makes the failure to do so a choice. How hollow will all the condemnation of Dorries ring, from all sides, should the electorate ever realise that the politicians have to hand a simple means to remedy the problem – but are choosing not to use it?
Doubtless the lady would protest. But she would always be free, as did Wilkes, to ask the voters of Mid Bedfordshire to return her to Parliament, if they think the quest for her missing peerage warrants it.