Many politicos know the old tale: ‘Members of Parliament are not permitted to resign from their seats’. This leaves MPs with two allowed options to resign – choosing not to contest at the next election, or death. But that hasn’t stopped 146 sitting MPs from quitting mid-term since 1945. In this post, I analyse resignations dating back from 1979, or the last 51 MPs who have ‘taken the Chiltern Hundreds’ ignoring 15 MPs who resigned in protest of the Anglo-Irish agreement. To do this, I took data from the Parliament.uk website with contextual analysis from news articles to look into why the resigning has become a growing trend.
How MPs Resign: The Constitutional Situation
Long ago, people were somewhat more reluctant to become MPs then they are now. Often people would be elected against their will. In the 1600’s reimbursement to be an elected representative was poor, and the regular travel required on 17th century transport infrastructure was long, tiresome, and often. As a result, the job was seen as a burden and not a privilege. MPs would often seek to resign their posts, leaving the House baron, or worst, occupied by ‘the wrong sort’. To counter this, a resolution was passed on the 2nd March 1624 which prohibited MPs from resigning or willingly giving up their seat. This law still stands today, which makes the process of resignation somewhat more complex than for the rest of us, the un-elected masses.
Due to the prohibitive nature of resignation, as all good things, MPs use a technicality. There are two ancient roles which disqualify representatives from sitting in the house; the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds, and the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. Both these titles make the holder under the employment of the crown, and due to the …historical differences… between House of Commons and the crown, subsequently incumbency of being an MP and employed by the crown is banned. If an MP was to be appointed to either of these roles, they would automatically be disqualified from their position and trigging a by-election. Here lies the technicality. MPs can apply to the office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer who often would signs a warrant appointing them to one of the two positions. This is where the term ‘taking the Chiltern Hundreds’ comes from. Therefore, MPs don’t quit, they just apply for employment under the crown which disqualifies them from the house. Quitting MPs normally hold their new title until another MP applies to one of the two positions. I bet you can’t name another job which comes with such a grand title for when you resign.
A Growing Trend?
When analysing MPs who have taken the Chiltern Hundreds there is evidence to suggest that since 1979 there has been a growing trend since 2007 for MPs to resign. Ignoring 2015 as MPs are reluctant to quit knowing there is soon to be a General Election, or would resign their post seven months into their incumbency. The time from 2007 to 2016 has shown an exceptional level of resignations. With this period accounting for 51% of all resignations the last 37 years.
Why MPs resign
Looking at the frequency of resignations, one could be inclined to argue that we could expect more in the future. However, without understanding the context. Using the collected contextual data, it’s easy to see that throughout the data set that the biggest reason for MPs quitting is to take up a post elsewhere (56.9%). From these 10 have quit to take up or contest another representative role, 5 took up an official role within the EU, 5 took up a job for a private company, 4 left to go into roles with non-private institutions, 3 left to take up a peerage, and 2 took up media roles (both presenters). The places where MPs choose to move to suggests the reasons for moving may not be financial, but there is an element that MPs may find they can have a greater influence or have more impact outside the House of Commons.
Scandal was the second biggest reason for MP’s to resign (15.7%). The majority involved some type of financial scandal (4); two involved extramarital affairs; one was for Chris Hulme who was sentenced to prison for perverting the course of justice; and the last was the former speaker Michael Martin following his handling of the expenses scandal. The overall number for MPs to resign due to scandal is surprisingly low. Current affairs often point out scandals by individual MPs, particularly the parliamentary expenses scandal, cash for questions, cash for honours, and other scandals. However, the majority of the Members implicated in such affairs successfully weather the media attention and choose not to resign, often to later contest further elections. Proving that MPs often remain in their place against significant claims against them.
However, the majority reasons behind why MPs resign remain somewhat consistent across the different parliaments. However, there has been a significant increase in diversity in the latter half of the dataset. While MPs have always left their roles, scandals have been an increasing reason for resignation. Suggesting the impact of the changing media landscape is visible within this data.
The party situation
It would be a waste to have all this data and not to investigate the party political aspect. In terms of pure numbers, Labour MPs have a greater tendency to resign (54.9%) followed by the Conservatives (29.4%), with the 4 other parties and speakers making up 15.7% of all other resignations. This is largely due to the increased number of Labour MPs who leave for another role compared to the Conservatives (19 vs 7) respectively. However, Labour have also had one more MP resign due to scandal, and one more due to ill health in comparison. Overall it seems Labour MPs are more likely to leave.
The Financial Impact
The impact of MPs resigning has significant financial implications. By-elections are actually quite costly affairs; the costs of polling stations, postal votes, and staffing the stations and the election count are an average of £136,666 per election. Furthermore, each candidate also has the option to send a letter to each constituent at the cost of the states. This accounts for an additional average of £103,683 from the public purse to the now privatised Royal Mail. Overall, this means each by-election costs an average of £239,529. This all adds up. 10 by-elections caused by resignations from 2011-2013 cost a total of over £2m. The costs for by-elections per voter are elevated over the costs of a general election due to reduced voter turnout in by-elections, and the necessity of a speedy turn around to organised everything.
Political parties also incur a significant cost at by-elections. Advertising, leaflets, market research and canvassing, press conferences, media costs, transport, and administration all costs a significant amount. The Electoral Commission limits this spending to £100,000 per party per by election, although most parties won’t spend near this much, a seat with an already small majority will attract more campaign spending.
I will never argue that “we should cut the costs of elections”. The cost of democracy should never be seen as an area of austerity for obvious reasons. However, hopefully these figures should make a political representative think hard before quitting, or even standing if they envisage themselves not completing a full term. For MPs that do resign, there should really be a good reason. This brings into question two MPs who have resigned, only to stand in the subsequent by-election for a political point. Both David Davis (2008) and Zac Goldsmith (2016) both quit for a political statement. A very expensive, £239k, political statement. Which makes you wonder if there wasn’t a better way for them to make a stand for their values.
You could argue both MPs who swapped from Conservative to UKIP were also making a political statement. But I’d argue that there are good representative arguments – with lots of constituents voting on party lines rather than the individual, many people would be somewhat disappointed to find out that their Conservative candidate turned to another party. Which would explain the reduced majority for Mark Reckless in the 2014 by-election.
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