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Recently I posted the question Can a Prime Minister be appointed if they do not have a seat in the Parliament? and got a reference to:

So if the Conservatives win a majority but Johnson loses his seat, it would not be unprecedented for one of his colleagues in a very safe seat to take the Chiltern Hundreds and trigger a by-election which Johnson could contest.

I didn't know about the Chiltern Hundreds so went through the article in Wikipedia to see:

"Taking the Chiltern Hundreds" refers to the legal fiction used to resign from the House of Commons. Since Members of Parliament are not permitted to resign, they are instead appointed to an "office of profit under the Crown", which requires MPs to vacate their seats.

In the 17th century Members of Parliament (MPs) were often elected against their will. On 2 March 1624, a resolution was passed by the House of Commons making it illegal for an MP to quit or wilfully give up his seat. Believing that officers of the Crown could not remain impartial, the House passed a resolution on 30 December 1680 stating that an MP who "shall accept any Office, or Place of Profit, from the Crown, without the Leave of this House ... shall be expelled [from] this House."

So this seems to be a workaround to resign: you get a place in Chiltern Hundreds and then your resignation becomes automatic for the incompatibility of positions.

However, it remains unclear to me: how many people can get this position? What if a big group of people want to resign at the same time? Do they get this position forever or just for the rest of the period?

  • The point is that one could then immediately resign from the Chiltern Hundreds position, or be replaced when someone else is appointed. – jamesqf Dec 18 '19 at 18:43
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First things first: there are actually two such positions: the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds and the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. So the obvious method when two members want to resign is to appoint one to be Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead and the other Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds. These appointments are used in alternation; as the last person to resign from the House of Commons (ex-Speaker John Bercow is now Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead the next Commons resignee will be appointed Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds.

Each of these positions is a single position, i.e. it can be filled by one person at one time. They are appointed by and following a request to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. (The Chancellor may deny the application which seems to have happened last in 1842.) One person’s appointment is immediately ended when a new person is appointed which can be anything from minutes to years. In theory, either Crown Steward and Bailiff can apply to be released from that position, but since neither gives any salary or carries any responsibilities there seems to be no reason to.

When more than two people wish to resign at the same time, as happened, for example, following the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 when all Unionist Northern Irish MP’s wished to resign in protest, the offices are appointed sequentially. As soon as an MP is appointed, they immediately cease to be a member of parliament but once they are out they are able to lose the appointment almost immediately. Thus, the lists on Wikipedia contain a big block in 1985 with a number of people appointed to both offices on the same day. The ultimate holders of these positions, William McCrea (Chiltern Hundreds) and Enoch Powell (Manor of Northstead were both reelected in the subsequent by-elections, proving that only the appointment, not holding the position disqualifies from sitting in the House of Commons.

As an additional amusing side fact: both offices have been held by (Irish Nationalist) Sinn Féin MP’s who don’t sit in the House of Commons as they refuse to swear allegiance to the Queen. Their letters to the Chancellor with intent to resign did not explicitly mention either position and despite being appointed to one they would not admit holding an office of profit under the Crown. British legal fictions are fun!

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    All of this just because they don't want to legislate on resignations? :) – fedorqui Dec 18 '19 at 15:50
  • David Davies resigned to protest the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 then asked to be released from the office immediately so that he could stand for by-election. – richardb Dec 18 '19 at 15:58
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    @fedorqui It's mainly because of the idea that being an MP isn't just a job that you can quit. Good briefing on the parliament web site: researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN06395/… – richardb Dec 18 '19 at 16:07
  • @fedorqui Actually, they legislated on this as recently as 1975, see the House of Commons Disqualification Act. – Jan Dec 18 '19 at 16:09
  • @richardb Seems that was unnecessary as the act states ‘For the purposes of the provisions of this Act relating to the vacation of the seat of a member of the House of Commons who becomes disqualified by this Act for membership of that House, the office of steward or bailiff of Her Majesty’s three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham, or of the Manor of Northstead, shall be treated as included among the offices described in Part III of Schedule 1 to this Act’, meaning that they are only for vacating. – Jan Dec 18 '19 at 16:10
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There are in fact two separate offices used for this purpose:

  • Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham

  • Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.

The Wikipedia page on resignation from the Commons makes it clear how multiple simultaneous resignations work:

The offices are used alternately, making it possible for two members to resign at the same time. When more than two MPs resign at a time—for example, when 15 Ulster Unionist MPs resigned in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement on 17 December 1985—the resignations are, in theory, not simultaneous but spread throughout the day, enabling each member to hold one of the offices for a short time. The former office-holder may subsequently be reelected to Parliament.

One only needs to hold the position momentarily in order to cease service in the House of Commons, so it can then be given to another person to allow them to resign.

  • So they hold the office for... hours? :O – fedorqui Dec 18 '19 at 15:36
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    They hold the office until somebody else is appointed to it. This could be hours or it could be years. – CoedRhyfelwr Dec 18 '19 at 15:37
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    So the last one holds the office until a new one is appointed. And what if the 'current' holder wants to run for an election again? Can they resign to the Chiltern Hundreds office? – fedorqui Dec 18 '19 at 15:39
  • While I can't find any evidence, I suspect somebody else (not an MP) could be appointed to the office upon request in order that the current office holder could resume service. Given many resignations have been to seek re-elction in protest to something, a similar procedure is certainly possible. – CoedRhyfelwr Dec 18 '19 at 15:47
  • Answered in my answer @fedorqui ;) – Jan Dec 18 '19 at 15:48

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