YOU know you’re going soft when you start feeling sorry for politicians.
My first reaction on hearing Patrick Mercer had resigned from the Conservatives in disgrace last week was not “ha, ha, ha”, but rather, “what a pity, he seemed like a nice man”.
I happened to have a few conversations with the MP for Newark a couple of months ago and found him amiable and helpful.
We even had a wee chat about our time in Northern Ireland – he did nine tours. I did one really long one that started in the maternity ward.
I’ve also been told by a Labour Party person who knows Mr Mercer well that he’s an honourable man.
Yet there he is on film, offering his services for cash to someone he thought was a Fijian lobbyist but who was actually an undercover reporter.
Three years ago New Labour has-beens Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers were caught in a similar sting by Channel 4. I didn’t even try to stop myself laughing as I watched them grubbily offering their “expertise” while a hidden camera recorded their pathetic little pitches.
“I’m a cab for hire,” bragged Mr Byers, inadvertently carving his own political epitaph as he negotiated his fee.
Call it mellowing with age, but this time round I haven’t found anything funny in Mr Mercer’s downfall – just a sense of sadness that he’s ruined his career for the sake of a few thousand quid.
It’s also sad that the former Conservative’s enthusiasm for all things Fijian has enabled the Government to recall one of its worst ideas from the deepest recesses of its memory banks.
The recall election, one of those populist gimmicks to come out of the expenses scandal, is back on the agenda thanks to Mr Mercer’s shenanigans.
Like police commissioners, the recall is an awful idea which has swum across the Atlantic to be welcomed with open arms by politicians desperate to find any way to connect with the public.
The right of recall allows a set percentage of voters to force a one-off vote about a politician who has upset them in some way. “Should we fire this loser now?” is essentially the question on the ballot paper.
It’s supposed to be an anti-corruption measure, but the recall’s most high-profile use in the US had nothing to do with brown-paper envelopes.
Ten years ago the Republicans in California decided they didn’t like the recently-elected Democratic governor putting up car tax so they funded a recall effort. There was no suggestion that Gray Davis had done anything unethical, he was taken out simply because he had upset the rich and powerful.
The Tories put the stupid recall idea in their 2010 manifesto and, in an instance of reverse Darwinism, the proposal somehow survived the coalition negotiations to become Government policy.
Thankfully, the plan has spent the last three years in Nick Clegg’s filing cabinet. But, thanks to Mr Mercer’s downfall, the Lib Dem leader announced this week that he had blown the dust off the file and hoped to make it law by 2015.
If, as supporters claim, the recall is designed to target MPs whose behaviour has brought shame on their office, then it’s a sledgehammer to crack an anomaly.
Members of Parliament are already booted from office if they receive a prison sentence of more than a year. Most politicians who commit less serious offences fall on their swords without needing a recall vote – Chris Huhne being a recent example.
So the recall would be effective only against the tiny number of MPs who try to brazen out a serious disgrace – the Neil Hamiltons of this world.
And even then, a recall would do nothing more than bring forward the moment of the disgraced MP’s inevitable downfall.
As an anti-corruption measure, the recall is close to useless. But as a way for special interests to bully MPs, it could be very effective.
The initial Tory proposal was that just 100 constituents would be needed to launch a petition against an MP, with three months to then collect the signatures of 10% of voters to force a by-election.
Hard to complete but easy to commence, the recall could become the default option for anyone trying to twist an MP’s arm.
“If you don’t want me going round your constituency collecting signatures calling for your sacking, you’ll support my proposal on fox hunting / Europe / tobacco packaging etc.”
And, the irony of it all, the people issuing the threats would be the well-funded lobbyists – the ones who don’t have hidden cameras in their briefcases, that is.