Friday 16 June 2023

Getting sacked the hard way


One of the by-products of the latest chapters in the Johnson Saga has been the exposure to public view, once again, of the Ruritanian nature of the rules of the UK parliament. Nadine Dorries promised to resign ‘with immediate effect’ a week ago, but is now refusing to do so until the government give her a satisfactory reason for not ennobling her. (Apparently, demanding an explanation for failing to appoint someone as a member of the legislature for the rest of their life is an entirely reasonable proposition on planet Dorries.)

In fact she can’t resign, even if and when she wants to. For reasons dating back to the days when MPs were often appointed against their wishes, resignation from the House of Commons is illegal. Members can, however, be expelled, and expulsion is automatic for any MP appointed to an office of profit under the Crown unless they have first asked the permission of the House. To facilitate the expulsion of members, two ancient posts have been retained, and been designated as ‘offices of profit’. It’s a strange designation for a job which has neither function nor remuneration – non-office of non-profit would be more accurate. By tradition, only MPs can be appointed to these jobs, and appointment results in immediate expulsion from the House of Commons. MPs can apply to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be appointed to one of the jobs, and convention says that he can’t refuse. So, for an MP, ‘resignation’ in effect amounts to applying to be expelled.

It gets better. Once a member has been duly expelled for applying for and accepting an unpaid job with no responsibilities, someone has to move a writ in the House of Commons for a by-election to be called. If the majority vote for the writ (and convention, again, says that they must do so), the Speaker informs the Returning Officer and an election is called. Of course, a writ can only be moved and voted on if parliament is sitting; if an MP decides not to apply for a pointless unpaid job until the recess, the writ cannot be moved until parliament reconvenes. And all because they allow tradition to stand in the way of the obvious approach – an ‘I quit’ letter to the Speaker followed by an automatic by-election. Still, it gives MPs something to do and helps them feel important.

But who, in their right minds, would devise such a silly system in the first place?

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