A sackable offence?

Will it rebuild trust or force MPs to keep their heads down? Next week the Commons debates the detail of a proposed system of "Recall" for members of parliament, allowing voters to sack their elected representatives between elections.

Not surprisingly, honourable members are taking a lively interest - this could be the way their careers end. Two different systems are on offer, with important philosophical differences between them.

The government offers a system where MPs who've been jailed, or who have been suspended from the House for 21 days by the Standards Committee for some offence, become recallable.

If enough voters in their constituency sign a petition, they're gone. (There's a Labour amendment to reduce that to 10 days.)

But a phalanx of amendments backed by a cross party alliance headed by Tory maverick Zac Goldsmith would rewrite the bill into something much wider. He proposes a two stage process process - first 5% or more of voters in a constituency have to sign a "notice of intent to recall" and that triggers a recall petition which has to be signed by at least 20% of voters.

If that happens, the seat is declared vacant and a by-election follows.

The way the government's version of the bill is written limits the issues on which an MP can be recalled. Either they have to have been convicted of a criminal offence and jailed, or they have to have fallen foul of the Standards Committee, which polices MPs' ethics.

So, for example, voters could not recall an MP for switching parties (if they failed to follow the emerging "Carswell Convention" that they should resign and fight a by-election if they do so) or for reneging on an election promise, or for behaving in some way that was disreputable but not criminal or a parliamentary offence.

Labour front-benchers Stephen Twigg and Thomas Docherty have attempted to make this explicit in an amendment that: "No action shall be initiated against an MP in relation to a recall petition process on the basis, or as a result of votes cast, speeches made or any text submitted for tabling by such an MP, within, or as a part of, a parliamentary proceeding."

The Goldsmith version would give voters complete discretion; an MP could be recalled for any reason that could glean the support of a fifth of their electorate.

It is not entirely surprising that this makes many MPs rather nervous.

Would those with very narrow majorities get their collar felt on some spurious grounds, when their party slumped in the polls? Would moneyed eurosceptics or Scottish nationalists (a real anxiety, this one) or anti-abortionists, or pro-frackers, start picking off their ideological opponents, either removing them or pinning them down into a permanent battle for survival?

And would MPs, defensively, avoid putting their heads over the parapet on any controversial issue, to forestall the possibility of a pitchfork-wielding mob of recallers coming to get them?

In that environment would anyone take on controversial causes the way the pioneers of the 1960s addressed abortion or gay rights or the death penalty?

And would anyone dare tackle a vested interest that might retaliate by underwriting a recall attempt?

The answer depends on how the politicians think the voters would react to the prospect of a mid-term by-election. Some believe recall only becomes a realistic danger if the electorate has something to be really indignant about - and that only a major breach of promise or ethical lapse would provide sufficient provocation. Being jailed over an anti-fracking protest - a fate avoided by the Green MP Caroline Lucas when she beat an obstruction charge - might not prove fatal, for example.

Other MPs are less confident, and see Recall as another mechanism allowing those with sufficient resources to attempt to reverse election results they don't like; they predict a spiralling tit-for-tat battle, with retaliatory recall attempts directed against the most vulnerable MPs of opposing parties.

What about the other side of the coin? Recent Westminster history is littered with examples of disgraced MPs, who lingered in Parliament for years after having been discredited, so that they could slink anonymously away at the next election. Should their voters not have the right to get rid of them if they won't go of their own accord?

The Commons Standards Committee has effectively forced the resignations of a couple of MPs in this Parliament - Denis MacShane and Patrick Mercer. But one of the complaints about the government version of Recall is that it relies on that committee as the gatekeeper of the process, as far as non-criminal matters are concerned.

And a number of MPs used Tuesday's second reading debate to complain that the committee was far more lenient towards the powerful than towards the maverick or obscure. The problem with "gatekeeper recall" is that it relies on trust in the gatekeeper - and suspicion that the people at the top are treated more leniently, while others are thrown to the wolves, is already out there.

So watch out for amendments to beef up the Standards Committee. They are holding an inquiry into their own workings, and at a fascinating couple of hearings last week they pondered the arguments for opening up their proceedings. Their conclusions, when they come, will make interesting reading.

Recall was originally put in the Coalition agreement as a way of addressing post-expenses public disquiet about the behaviour of MPs. And some argue that it is more than a mere mechanism - conceding more accountability to the voters would be a symbolic act of atonement by the political elite. And even many recall-sceptics seem to sense that and are cautious about voicing open opposition.

There may well be free votes on the various amendments to be considered by MPs next week, and there may well be on-the-day negotiation on the details, resulting in compromise amendments being tabled during the debate.

And since this will be a two day process - with a second day of committee stage a week later - there is plenty of time to arrive at a compromise.

But the biggest question of all is how the voters react to whatever the politicians agree.