Under a Resolution from 2nd March 1624, Members of Parliament cannot directly resign their seat. Serving in Parliament was regarded as an obligation to be accepted only reluctantly rather than an honour to be eagerly sought. Voluntary relinquishment of a seat was not, therefore, something to be encouraged. It was also the case that, before the sixteenth century, it was very rare for a parliament to sit for longer than a few weeks so that a procedure for resignation was hardly necessary.
The get out clause – Paid office of the crown
One way in which a Member of Parliament might be able to vacate his seat was by accepting a paid office of the Crown. This was because it was assumed that a Member receiving a salary from the Crown could not be expected to scrutinise the actions of the Crown or the Crown’s government. A resolution of 30th December 1680 was worded as follows:
Resolved, Nemine contradicente, That no Member of this House shall accept of any Office, or Place of Profit, from the Crown, without the Leave of this House, or any Promise of any such Office, or Place of Profit, during such time as he shall continue a Member of this House.
Resolved, That all Offenders herein shall be expelled this House.
Death, disqualification and expulsion are the only means by which a Member’s seat may be vacated during the lifetime of a Parliament.
There are two offices that are used for disqualification: Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds and of the Manor of Northstead.
What is Chiltern Hundreds?
The Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham are in Buckinghamshire, and include the towns of Amersham, Beaconsfield, High Wycombe, Marlow, Eton and Chesham. They extend from the Middlesex border west across most of the county and from the Hertfordshire border to the Thames. The Hundreds belonged to the Crown as early as the 13th century and were administered as a Royal bailiwick (run on behalf of the Crown). There was another Royal bailiwick of the Chiltern Hundreds, this being the four and a half hundreds of Binfield, Langtree, Lewknor, Pirton and Ewelme in Oxfordshire. During the seventeenth century, a hundred years after any records of their actual administration cease, the office of Steward became divorced from any former actual duties, and ceased to enjoy any revenues from the area.
The Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds is thought to have been used for the first time as a means of resignation from the House of Commons on 17th January 1751 by John Pitt, who wanted to vacate his seat for Wareham and stand for Dorchester. In October 1750, Pelham wrote to William Pitt “I find Jack Pitt is very anxious about quitting his seat in Parliament in order to be chosen at Dorchester. You know the only difficulty. I have assured him I will do my best when the King comes over … I hope, when I can speak myself, it will do. I must beg you to make him easy”. The King did indeed grant him the Stewardship, and John Pitt was later returned unopposed for Dorchester.
So how does an MP resign?
A Member wishing to resign applies to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for one of the offices, which he or she retains until the Chancellor appoints another applicant or until the holder applies for release from it. (Every new warrant issued revokes the previous holder). It is usual to grant the offices alternately; as this enables two Members to retire at precisely the same time.
Upon receipt of a Member’s application for the Chiltern Hundreds, a warrant of appointment is signed (in the presence of a witness) by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Having helped take the UK out of The European Union, later replacing Theresa May as prime-minister, holding and winning a general election with a circa 80 majority, progressing agreement with the EU, and then leading the nation through a difficult few years of COVID pandemic progressing the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to maintain levels of employment, has fallen foul of breaching COVID restrictions, resigned as Prime-Minister and now as a member of Parliament.
Opinions will be split from those who admire Boris for his leading the nation through difficult times, to those who consider him to have been a bumbling buffoon.
The coming months will be interesting as the nation changes direction. What of the future of Boris Johnson?