Mind your language

Why disgraced MPs head for the Chiltern Hundreds

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

I saw in last week’s Spectatorthat the tractor MP had applied for the stewardship of the Manor of Northstead. After only a few days, the Chancellor of the Exchequer granted him this office of profit under the Crown, which disqualifies him from continuing as an MP. These days, when it is hard to book a doctor’s appointment and impossible to get most public corporations even to answer the telephone, it’s quick work on Rishi Sunak’s part.

The Manor of Northstead is in Scarborough. The former manor house was reported in 1600 to have been used by a shepherd ‘until it fell down’. Previous stewards include David Cameron and Gerry Adams. The last one was Owen Paterson, but his tenure was terminated by the warrant granting the stewardship to the new holder.

You could call the appointment a legal fiction. MPs cannot resign, so they apply for this office, or to be steward of the hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham, otherwise known as the Chiltern Hundreds, which cover a good part of Buckinghamshire. Gladstone, in his knotted way, worried about granting office to MPs who had done wrong, such as the Liberal MP Edwin James, who in 1861 fled to America owing £100,000; after that, any reference to an honour was removed from the letters of appointment.

The Oxford English Dictionary is positively garrulous on the origins of Chiltern Hundreds, but the language point I’d make is that the phrase is far less generally familiar now than in my parents’ time. A successful play called The Chiltern Hundreds by William Douglas Home ran for 651 performances from 26 August 1947. The present Queen saw it in 1948. The eccentric Earl of Lister was played by A.E. Matthews (so famous that he became Roy Plomley’s 100th castaway), and Douglas Home wrote a sequel, The Manor of Northstead, which was never revived, unlike the original, which saw the limelight again in 1999, with Edward Fox its main attraction.

For Broadway the play was retitled Yes, M’Lord, and the film version had the alternative title The Amazing Mr Beecham (the butler). Neither name is compelling, but perhaps nor would the original title be today, unless, I might suggest, for a television drama on political downfalls.

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