Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Infobox minister office
border = parliamentary
minister = prime
title = Prime Minister
jurisdiction = the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
tookoffice = 27 June 2007
appointed_by = Elizabeth II
monarch = Sovereign
first_minister = Sir Robert Walpole (generally regarded as the first incumbent)
date = 4 April 1721The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the political leader of the
United Kingdomand the Head of His/Her Majesty's Government. The Prime Minister and Cabinet (consisting of all the most senior government department heads) are collectively accountable for their policies and actions to the Sovereign, to Parliament (of which they are members), to their political party, and ultimately the electorate.
The United Kingdom does not have a written Constitution. The office of Prime Minister is the result of political evolution, rather than legislation. Modern Prime Ministers have few statutory powers but, provided they can command the support of their parliamentary party, they can control both the legislature (the House of Commons) and the executive (the Cabinet) and hence wield considerable "de facto" powers.
The current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is
The modern Prime Minister of the United Kingdom wields broad executive and legislative powers. The incumbent leads a major political party, commands a majority in the House of Commons (the Legislature), and is the leader of the Cabinet (the Executive). Under the British system, there is a unity of powers rather than separation as in other democracies. [Le May, 98-99. Walter Bagehot, an authority on 19th century British government, said this unity is "the efficient secret" of its constitution. Bagehot's description of the "efficient part" of the British constitution is quoted by Le May and many other standard texts: "The efficient secret of the English Constitution may be described as the close union, the nearly complete fusion, of the executive and legislative powers. No doubt, by the traditional theory, as it exists in all the books, the goodness of our constitution consists in the entire separation of the legislative and executive authorities, but in truth its merit consists in their singular approximation. The connecting link is the Cabinet.... A Cabinet is a combing committee - a hyphen which joins a buckle which fastens, the legislative part of the State to the executive part of the State. In its origin it belongs to the one, in its functions it belongs to the other."] Called "
royal prerogatives", many of these powers are still formally vested in the Head of State, the Sovereign. In practice, they were devolved to the Prime Minister as incumbents gradually acquired, after 1688, a dominant position in the constitutional hierarchy vis-à-vis the Sovereign, the Houses of Commons and Lords in Parliament, and the Cabinet.
The Premiership was not intentionally created like the American Presidency and other democratic heads of government. The office is not defined by a codified Constitution, but by unwritten customs known as conventions that evolved as Sovereigns, Parliament, Prime Ministers and the Cabinet reacted to events and resolved issues as they arose. [King, pages 3-8. King makes the point that much of the British constitution is in fact written and that no constitution is written down in its entirety. The distinctive feature, he says, of the British constitution is that it is not codified.]
Until the 20th century, the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Sovereign, Parliament, and Cabinet was - and to a large extent still is - defined by conventions. The Premiership is a convention because it developed in the shadow of the Monarchy, competing with it for executive authority. The origins of this rivalry lay in the Civil Wars of the 17th century. Before 1688, the Sovereign had been both Head of State and Government. Afterwards, Parliament allowed the Sovereign to remain Head of State, but gradually place day-to-day governance under its control. It did not, however, create a formal mechanism by which to wield these executive powers.
The office of the Prime Minister filled this void. Evolving quietly behind the scenes, Parliament transferred executive powers first to the Cabinet and then to the legal office of First Lord of the Treasury, who became known unofficially as the Prime Minister. During the same period, Parliament deferentially maintained the legal fiction that the Sovereign retained the power to govern directly, giving little formal recognition to the office of Prime Minister.
This arrangement makes it appear that Britain has two executives: the Prime Minister and the Sovereign. [Low, p.155. In 1902, for example, Arthur Balfour said, "The Prime Minister has no salary as Prime Minister. He has no statutory duties as Prime Minister, his name occurs in no Acts of Parliament, and though holding the most important place in the constitutional hierarchy, he has no place which is recognised by the laws of his country. This is a strange paradox"] The concept of the "Crown" resolves this paradox. [Low, p. 255 "There is no distinction", said Gladstone, "more vital to the practice of the British constitution or to the right judgement upon it than the distinction between the Sovereign and the Crown."] The Crown symbolises the state’s authority to govern: to make laws and execute them, impose taxes and collect them, sign treaties, declare war and make peace. After 1688, Parliament gradually made Sovereigns give up these powers and forced them assume a neutral political position. They placed the Crown in "commission", entrusting its authority to responsible Ministers (the Prime Minister and Cabinet), accountable for their policies and actions to Parliament and the people. Although the Sovereign's prerogatives were still intact, Parliament removed the Sovereign from everyday governance, leaving it in practice with three constitutional rights: to be kept informed, to advise, and to warn. [Baghot, p. 67] [Low, pages 255-258.]
Foundations of the office of Prime Minister: 1688-1720
Since the office of Prime Minister evolved, there is no exact date when the process began. A meaningful starting point, however, is 1688 when James II fled England. The throne being vacant, the
Parliament of Englandconfirmed William and Mary as joint constitutional Monarchs, enacting legislation that limited their authority and that of their successors: the Bill of Rights (1689), the Mutiny Bill (1689), the Triennial Bill (1694), the Treason Act (1696), and the Act of Settlement (1701). [Knappen, pages 448-451.] Known collectively as the Revolutionary Settlement, these acts transformed the constitution, shifting the balance of power from the Sovereign to Parliament. Unknown at the time, they also provided the basis for the evolution of the Prime Minister.
Meeting every year (rather than irregularly at the Sovereign’s summons as in centuries past), Parliament became a permanent feature of political life. Holding the “power of the purse”, it controlled finances. The Monarchy could no longer live on its own income. For want of money, Sovereigns had to summon Parliament annually and could no longer dissolve or prorogue it without its advice and consent. [Smith, pages 371-373] The veto prerogative fell into disuse because Sovereigns feared that if they denied legislation, Parliament would deny them money. No Sovereign has used it since Queen Anne vetoed the Scottish Militia Bill in 1708. [Smith, p. 382]
The Treasury Bench and Standing Order 66
The Revolutionary Settlement gave the Commons new financial powers and control over legislation and, thereby, changed the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature. Treasury officials were drawn into Parliament, serving as liaisons between the Sovereign and Parliament. Sovereigns now had to consider them not only as department heads but also as members of Parliament and politicians. In this new capacity, Ministers had to present and defend the government's policies, and negotiate with Members to gain the support of the majority; they had to explain the government’s financial needs, suggest ways of meeting them and give an account of how money had been spent, particularly in the House of Commons since it held the purse strings. The Sovereign’s representatives became so important and attended Commons sessions so regularly that they were given reserved seats at the front, known as the Treasury Bench. This is the beginning of "unity of powers": the Sovereign's Ministers (the Executive) became leading members of Parliament (the Legislature). Today, the Prime Minister (First Lord of the Treasury), the Chancellor of the Exchequer (responsible for the budget) and other members of the Cabinet sit on the Treasury bench and present policies in much the same way Ministers did late in the 17th century.
After the Revolution, there was a constant threat that non-government members of Parliament would ruin the country's finances by proposing self-serving, ill-considered money bills. Vying for control over the budget to avoid chaos, the Crown's Ministers - those who sit on the Treasury Bench - gained an advantage in 1706 when the Commons informally declared, "That this House will receive no petition for any sum of money relating to public Service, but what is recommended from the Crown." Seven years later, on June 11, 1713, this non-binding rule became Standing Order 66: that “the Commons would not vote money for any purpose, except on a motion of a Minister of the Crown.” Standing Order 66 remains in effect today, essentially unchanged for three hundred years. [Roseveare, p.80.]
Empowering government Ministers with sole financial initiative had a profound immediate and lasting impact. Apart from achieving its intended purpose - to stabilise the budgetary process - it naturally gave the Crown a leadership role in the Commons, and, just as naturally, the Lord Treasurer assumed a leading position among Ministers. The power of financial initiative was not, however, absolute. Only Ministers might initiate money bills, but Parliament now reviewed and consented to them. Standing Order 66 therefore represents the beginnings of Cabinet and Ministerial responsibility and accountability. [Smith, pages 372-373]
Because of its leadership position in Parliament as well as the government, the term "Prime Minister" first appears at this time as an unofficial title for the Head of the Treasury. Jonathan Swift, for example, wrote in 1713 about "those who are now commonly called Prime Minister among us", referring to
Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphinand Robert Harley, Queen Anne's Lord Treasurers and chief ministers. [Marriott, p. 87.] From this time, every head of the Sovereign's government - with one exception in the 18th century and one in the 19th - has been either Lord High Treasurer or, more commonly, First Lord of the Treasury.
The Nascent Cabinet
The modern Prime Minister is leader of the Cabinet. A convention of the constitution, the modern Cabinet is a group of about twenty ministers who formulate policies. As the temporary political heads of government departments - such as foreign affairs, transportation and education - Cabinet Ministers ensure that these policies are carried out by permanent civil servants. Although the modern Prime Minister actually selects Cabinet Ministers, the Sovereign, by custom, still officially appoints them to their offices. With the Prime Minister as its leader, the Cabinet forms the "executive branch" in the British system.
The unofficial term "Cabinet" first appears after the Revolutionary Settlement to describe those ministers who conferred privately with the Sovereign. The growth of the Cabinet as the executive council met with widespread complaint and opposition because its meetings were often held in secret, and it excluded the ancient, once powerful Privy Council from the Sovereign's circle of trusted advisers, reducing it to an honorary body. [Dodd, p. 79 In 1691, for example, a Lord protested, that "'Cabinet-Council' is not a word to be found in our Law-books. We know it not before: we took it for a nick-name. Nothing can fall out more unhappily, than to have a distinction made of the 'Cabinet' and 'Privy-Council' ... If some of the Privy-Council men be trusted, and some not, to whom is a gentleman to apply? Must he ask, "Who is a Cabinet-Counsellor? ... I am sure, these distinctions of some being more trusted than others have given great dissatisfaction."]
The nascent Cabinet included the Treasurer and other department heads who sat on the Treasury bench, as it does today. But in its formative years it was an amorphous body that might include, depending on the Sovereign's preferences, household officers (such as the Master of the Horse) and members of the royal family, as well as department heads. Sovereigns appointed and dismissed Cabinet members. King William (1688-1702) and Queen Anne (1702-1714) frequently attended meetings, guiding their discussions, making decisions, and following up on executive actions. They sometimes met privately with individual ministers to discuss policies, causing much confusion. Relieving the Sovereign of these responsibilities and gaining control over the Cabinet's composition was an essential part of political evolution of the modern office of Prime Minister. [Smith, pages 379-382.]
This process began after the Hanoverian Succession in 1714. George I (1714-1727) attended Cabinet meetings regularly at first but after 1717 withdrew, partly because he did not speak English, but mostly because he was bored with the discussions; he was only interested in decisions. George II (1727-1760) occasionally presided at Cabinet meetings; his grandson, George III (1760-1820), however, is known to have attended only two during his entire 60 year reign. Thus, the convention was established that Sovereigns do not attend Cabinet meetings. The Prime Minister presides, takes notes, and reports decisions to the Sovereign. These simple executive tasks - presiding and reporting - naturally gave the Prime Minister ascendancy over his Cabinet colleagues, and identified him as their leader. [Smith, p. 383.]
Beginnings of the Prime Minister's party leadership
The modern Prime Minister is also the leader of a major political party with millions of followers. Generally agreeing on policies, party members and leaders suppress their differences of opinion for the sake of gaining a majority in the Commons at the polls and being able to form a government. Once in office, the Prime Minister, as leader of the party, fills many government offices (up to 90 appointments may be made today, selected mostly from the House of Commons), distributing them to party members, partly as a reward for their loyalty.
The first political parties appeared a few years before the Revolutionary Settlement during the Exclusion Crisis of 1678-1681. The Whigs, who believed in limited Monarchy and in Parliament's right to legislate and control finances, wanted to exclude James Stuart from succeeding to the throne because he was a Catholic and espoused absolutist ideas about Kingship. The Tories, who believed in the "Divine Right of Kings", defended James' hereditary claim to the throne. These parties would dominate British politics for over 150 years, the Whigs generally being more liberal in their policies; the Tories more conservative. Indeed, in the 19th century, the most Whigs evolved into the Liberal Party; the Tories, the Conservative. Even today, Conservatives are often referred to as "Tories".
Political parties were not as organised and disciplined in the 17th century as they would become in the 19th and 20th. They were more like factions with "members" drifting in and out, working together temporarily on specific issues when it was to their advantage, then disbanding when it was not. Nevertheless, it became possible at this time to identify Parliaments and Ministries as being either "Whig" or "Tory" in composition.
Early in his reign, King William preferred "Mixed Ministries" choosing his ministers from both parties in an effort to get all points of view and to dilute the power of each. This approach did not work well. His Cabinets had no recognised leader and Ministers tended to bicker with each other and work at odds in the execution of policies. This has been the case ever since. Mixed Ministries or Coalitions have rarely been effective under the British system, except in times of crisis like the Great War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945). [Smith, pages 376-379.]
Mixed Ministries having failed, William formed a homogeneous Whig ministry in 1697 known as the "Junto". Nominally led by
Robert Spencer, (Earl of Sunderland) but in fact led by the King himself, the Juntois often cited as the first true Cabinet because its members were all Whigs, reflecting the composition of the Commons which was also Whig. [Marriott, pages 75-76.]
Queen Anne followed this pattern but she preferred Tory Cabinets, selecting her ministers almost exclusively from that party. This approach worked well as long as Parliament was also predominantly Tory. In 1702, the Tories dominated the Commons. However, in the elections of 1705, the Whigs made considerable gains, and then in 1708, they obtained a majority. Yet, Anne did not call on the Whigs to form a government; she refused to admit that a group of men could force themselves on her as Ministers merely because their party had a majority. [Dodd, p.66 "Is it not hard" Queen Anne said, "that men of sense and honour will not promote the good of their country, because everything in the world is not done as they desire?"] Anne's Cabinets remained nominally the same as they had been from the start. No general election result ever made her part with an entire Ministry or accept an entirely new one. Consequently, although Anne's chief ministers
Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphinand Robert Harley led their respective Cabinets (and were called "Prime Minister" by some), they had difficulty executing policy in the face of a generally hostile Parliament. [Smith, pages 379-382.]
Anne's five immediate successors - George I, George II, George III, George IV and William IV - agreed with her that the selection of Ministers is the Sovereign's sole prerogative. It was not until the 1830s that political reality established the constitutional convention that the Sovereign must select Prime Ministers and the Cabinet from the party whose views reflect those of the majority in Parliament. [Marriott, pages 76-83.]
The Treasury Commission: 1714
The office of the modern Prime Minister is still largely a convention of the constitution; its legal authority is derived primarily from the fact that the Prime Minister is also First Lord of the Treasury. The connection of these two offices - one a convention, the other a legal office - began with the Hanoverian Succession in 1714.
When King George I succeeded to the English throne in 1714, his German ministers advised him leave the office of Lord High Treasurer vacant because those who had held it in recent years (referring to Godolphin and Harley) had grown overly powerful, in effect, replacing the Sovereign as head of the government. They also feared that a Lord High Treasurer would undermine their own influence with the new King. They therefore suggested that instead he place the office in "commission', meaning that a committee of five ministers would perform its functions together. Theoretically, this dilution of authority would prevent any one of them from presuming to be the head of the government. The King agreed and created the Treasury Commission consisting of the First Lord of the Treasury, the Second Lord, and three Junior Lords.
No one has been appointed to the Lord High Treasureship since 1714; it has remained in commission for three hundred years. The Treasury Commission ceased to meet late in the 18th century but has survived, albeit with very different functions: the First Lord of the Treasury is now the Prime Minister, the Second Lord is the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and actually in charge of the Treasury), and the Junior Lords are government Whips maintaining party discipline in the House of Commons; they no longer have any duties related to the Treasury. [Marriotte, p. 107.]
Early Prime Ministers: 1720-1830
The "first" Prime Minister - Walpole (1720-1742)
Since the office was not created at a constitutional convention but evolved slowly over centuries, there is no "First" Prime Minister as there is a first President of the United States. However, the honorary appellation "First" Prime Minister is traditionally given to Sir Robert Walpole who became First Lord of the Treasury in 1721 and remained in office for 21 years.
the South Sea Company, created to trade in cotton, agricultural goods and slaves, collapsed, causing the financial ruin of thousands of investors and heavy losses for many others including members of the royal family. King George I called on Robert Walpole, well-known for his political and financial acumen, to handle the emergency. With considerable skill and some luck, Walpole acted quickly to restore public credit and confidence, and lead the country out of the crisis. A year later, the King appointed him First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons making him the most powerful minister in the government. Ruthless, crude, and hard-working, he had a "sagacious business sense" and was a superb manager of men. [Smith, p. 384.] At the head of affairs for the next two decades, Walpole stabilised the nation's finances, kept it at peace, made it prosperous, and secured the Hanoverian Succession. [Pike, pages 22-23.]
Walpole demonstrated for the first time how a chief minister - a Prime Minister - could be the actual Head of the Government under the new constitutional framework set up after the Revolutionary Settlement. First, recognising that the Sovereign could no longer be the head of the government, he nevertheless insisted that he was nothing more than the "King's Servant" and worked tirelessly to maintain the confidence of the Sovereign, sometimes resorting to bribery. [Smith, p. 385. On the accession of George II in 1727, for example, Walpole gave the new King an additional £100,000 for his personal use to maintain his offices.] Second, recognising that real power had shifted to the Commons, he conducted all of the nation's business there and made that chamber dominant over the Lords in all matters, not only finances. Third, recognising that the Cabinet had become the executive and must speak with one voice, he dominated the other members and demanding their complete, united support for his policies. Fourth, recognising that political parties were the source of ministerial strength, he led the Whig party and used every means - persuasion, patronage, political threats and bribery - to maintain discipline throughout the country, as well as the Commons, especially during elections. In the Commons, he insisted on the support of all Whigs members, especially those who had an office under the Crown. And, finally, he set an example for future Prime Ministers by resigning his offices in 1742 when he no longer had the confidence of a majority, even though he still retained the confidence of the Sovereign. [Marriott, pages 77-81. The preceding paragraph is a paraphrase of Hearn's famous list of Walpole's contributions to the evolution of the office of Prime Minister in his book "Government of England", page 220, quoted by Marriott.] [Smith, pages 385-387]
Ambivalence and denial: 1742-1784
For all his contributions to the office, Walpole was not a Prime Minister in the modern sense. The King chose him as his Prime Minister, not Parliament; and, the King chose the other members of the Cabinet, not Walpole. Walpole set an example not a precedent. Few of his Whig successors - except Henry Pelham - had the force of character to act upon the constitutional changes that had taken place after 1688; none of the Tory opposition were willing yet to accept them.
Consequently, for over 40 years after Walpole's fall in 1742, there was widespread ambivalence about the office. Few followed Walpole's example. In some cases, (such as the ministries of the Earl of Wilmington,
William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshireand William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland), the Prime Minister was a figurehead with power being wielded by one or more other individuals. In others, (such as the ministries of the Earl of Bute and Lord North), there was a reversion to the "chief minister" model of earlier times in which the Sovereign actually governed.
This ambivalence was reflected in the reluctance to use the title Prime Minister. Walpole is now considered the "First" Prime Minister, but the title was not commonly used during his tenure and for some time after; indeed, it was often denied, even by Walpole and others who held the office. In 1741, during the attack on Walpole that led to his downfall, Sandys declared that "According to our Constitution we can have no sole and prime minister . . . every . . . officer has his own proper department; and no officer ought to meddle in the affairs belonging to the department of another." In the same year, the Lords agreed that "We are persuaded that a sole, or even a first minister, is an officer unknown to the law of Britain, inconsistent with the Constitution of the country and destructive of liberty in any Government whatsoever." [Marriott, p. 88] In his own defence, Walpole said "I unequivocally deny that I am sole or Prime Minister and that to my influence and direction all the affairs of government must be attributed.... I do not pretend to be a great master of foreign affairs. In that post it is not my business to meddle and as one of His Majesty's Council I have but one voice." [Marriott, p. 88] Later, George Grenville, Prime Minister in the 1760s, said it was "an odious title" and never used it. [Low, p. 156] Lord North, the reluctant head of the King's Government during the American Revolution, "would never suffer himself to be called Prime Minister, because it was an office unknown to the Constitution." [Low, pages 156-157]
Even after the office had been accepted as a convention by both Tories and Whigs alike late in the 18th century, denials of its legal existence continued. In 1806, one member of the Commons asserted that "the Constitution abhors the idea of a prime minister"; in 1829 another said that "nothing could be more mischievous or unconstitutional than to recognise by act of parliament the existence of such an office." As late as 1904, still another complained that a list of the "King's birthday honours" had appeared in the newspapers as "the Prime Minister's List." In the same "debate", another inquired of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour whether his office had any legal status at all. [Low, p. 157 and footnote. According to the newspaper reports the following day, this exchange went as follows: " Mr. MacNeill asked the First Lord of the Treasury why, in the official announcement of the list of birthday honours, had that list been intituled the Prime Minister's list; what was the reason for this new departure in the form of the official announcement; and at whose suggestion and on whose responsibility had it been made; and whether there was any, and if so what, precedent for the announcement of the list of Birthday Honours as the Prime Minister's list. "Mr. Balfour: There was no official announcement of the kind supposed by the hon. gentleman made. I understand the list of honours was headed in one newspaper as the hon. gentleman suggests, but that was not the ordinary way in most of the newspapers, and certainly it had no authority from myself." Mr. G. Bowles: Will the right hon. gentleman say, for the information of the House, whether he is aware of any such official recognized by the law as the Prime Minister?"]
The 18th century ambivalence about the office causes problems for researchers who are trying to identify who was a Prime Minister and who was not. Every list of British Prime Ministers may omit certain politicians. For instance, unsuccessful attempts to form ministries - such as the two-day government formed by
William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bathin 1746, often dismissed as the "Silly Little Ministry" - may be included in a list or omitted, depending on the criteria selected.
Emergence of Cabinet Government - Pitt and Liverpool (1784-1830)
Despite the confusion, unofficial use of the title was gradually accepted because there was a growing recognition of need for the position. Whigs had accepted this need for years. Late in the 18th century even ardent Tories accepted it. Lord North, for example, who said in the 1770s that the office was "unknown to the constitution", was converted. Reversing himself, North said in 1783, "In this country some one man or some body of men like a Cabinet should govern the whole and direct every measure." [Dodd, p. 127] [Pares, p. 175 In a letter to the King written at the same time, North repeated the idea, "That in critical times, it is necessary that there should be one directing Minister, who should plan the whole of the operations of government, so far as to make them co-operate zealously & actively with his designs even tho' contrary to their own."] In 1803,
William Pitt the Younger, another Tory, argued that "this person generally called the first minister" was an absolute necessity for a government to function, and expressed his belief that this person should be the minister in charge of the finances. [Marriott, p. 88]
The wholesale conversion of Tories to accepting the office as a convention of the constitution started in 1784 after Pitt was confirmed as Prime Minister in a landslide Tory election victory. For the next 17 years until 1801 (and again from 1804 to 1806), Pitt, the Tory, was Prime Minister in the same sense that Walpole, the Whig, had been earlier. Thus, the Tories, for practical political reasons, finally accepted the constitutional changes implied in the Revolutionary Settlement.
The Tories' conversion to constitutional monarchy was reinforced after 1810. In that year, King George III, who had suffered periodically from mental instability (due to a blood disorder now known as
porphyria), became permanently insane and spent the remaining 10 years of his life confined to Windsor Castle, unable to discharge his duties. The Prince Regent, also named George, was restricted from using the full powers of Kingship. The Regent became King George IVin 1820, but during his 10 year reign was indolent and frivolous. Consequently, for 20 years the British throne was virtually vacant and Tory Cabinets led by Tory Prime Ministers filled the void, governing virtually on their own.
The Tories were in power almost continuously for 50 years, exception for a short Whig ministry from 1806 to 1807. For 15 years, from 1812 to 1827,
Lord Liverpoolwas Prime Minister. Together, he and Pitt were Prime Minister for 34 years. Under their consistent able leadership, Cabinet government, based on the model Walpole created, became a permanent convention of the constitution.
The Loyal Opposition
During this same period of Tory ascendancy, the expression "His Majesty's Opposition" was coined. In 1826,
John Cam Hobhouse, Lord Broughton, announced in the Commons that he opposed the report of a Bill. As a joke, he said, "It was said to be very hard on His Majesty's ministers to raise objections to this proposition. For my part, I think it is much more hard on His Majesty's Opposition to compel them to take this course." [Foord, p. 1.] [Foord, p.1 Laughter followed Hobhouse's remark but George Tierney, a leading Whig, repeated the phrase and added a definition. "My honourable friend," he said, "could not have invented a better phrase to designate us than that which he has adopted, for we are certainly to all intents and purposes a branch of His Majesty's Government." ] The phrase caught on and has been applied ever since to the second largest party in the Commons. Sometimes translated as the " Loyal Opposition", it acknowledges the legitimate existence of the two party system, and aptly describes an important constitutional concept: opposing the King's government is not treason; reasonable men can oppose the government's policies and still be loyal to the Sovereign and constitutional monarchy.
Today, the leaders of "
Her Majesty's Opposition" (the "Loyal Opposition") sit in the Commons on the front bench opposite the Treasury Bench, to the Speaker's left. They form a "Shadow Government", complete with a "Shadow Prime Minister" (the leader of the 2nd largest party), ready to assume office if the government of the day falls or loses the next election.
"First among equals": 1830-1911
The Great Reform Bill and the premiership - Grey
British Prime Ministers are not elected directly by the people. They became Prime Minister indirectly because: first, they were members of either the Commons or Lords; second, they were the leader of a great political party; and, third, they either inherited a majority in the Commons, or won more seats than the opposition in a general election.
Since 1722, most Prime Ministers have been members of the Commons; since 1902, all have had a seat there. Like other members, they are elected initially to represent only a constituency. Former Prime Minister
Tony Blair, for example, represented Sedgefieldin County Durham from 1983 – 2007. He became Prime Minister because he was elected Labour Party leader in 1994 and then led the party to victory in the 1997 general election, winning 418 seats compared to 165 for the Conservatives and gaining a majority in the House of Commons.
Neither the Sovereign nor the
House of Lordshad any meaningful influence over who was elected to the Commons in 1997 or in deciding whether or not Blair would become Prime Minister. Their detachment from the electoral process has been a convention of the constitution for almost 200 years.
Prior to the 19th century, however, they had significant influence, using to their advantage the fact that most citizens were disenfranchised and seats were allocated disproportionately. The system at that time was based on legislation passed in 1429 and virtually unchanged for 400 years. [Maitland, p. 354.] [Smith, pages 234-235.] In 1832, only 440,000 met the voter qualifications in a population of 17 million. While populations had increased in some constituencies and declined in others, their representation in the Commons remained the same. Some constituencies were over-represented; others under-represented; some large towns, like Liverpool, had no representation at all. The Crown and Lords, through patronage, corruption and bribery, personally “owned” many seats in the Commons, giving them enormous control over that chamber. About 30% of the seats were “pocket” or “rotten boroughs”; representatives from these boroughs “won” their elections through the influence of the Crown or a Lord. [Smith, pages 37-38,] [Marriott, pages 219-222.]
In 1830, Charles Grey, a life-long liberal, became Prime Minister determined to reform the electoral system. For two years, he and his Cabinet (consisting of four future Prime Ministers - Melbourne, Russell, Palmerston and Derby - and one former one, Goderich) fought resolutely to pass what has come to be known as the Great Reform Bill of 1832. [Pike, pages 188-194.] [Minney, p. 216. These are two of the most exciting years in all of Parliamentary history, filled with drama and a sense from the beginning that history was being made. Lord Creevey, for example, recorded in his diary, "I dined in Downing Street with Lady Grey . . . After dinner the private secretary to the Prime Minister and myself being alone, I ascertained that although Lord Grey was gone to Brighton ostensibly to prick for Sheriffs for the year, his great object was to put his plan of reform before the King, previous . . . to its being proposed to the House of Commons. A ticklish operation, this! to propose to a Sovereign a plan for reducing his own power and patronage. However, there is the plan all cut and dry, and the Cabinet unanimous upon it . . . Grey is determined to fight it out to a dissolution of Parliament, if his plan is beat in the Commons. My eye, what a crisis!"]
The greatness of the Great Reform Bill lay less in substance than symbolism. Substantively, it increase the franchise 65% to 717,000 with the middle class receiving most of the new votes. The representation of 56 rotten boroughs was eliminated completely and half the representation of 30 others; the freed up seats were distributed to boroughs created for previously disenfranchised areas. However, many rotten boroughs remained and the Bill did not transfer political power completely to the people; it still excluded millions of working class men and all women. [Marriott, pages 222-223.] [Smith, pages 437-444.]
Symbolically, the Bill exceeded all expectations and is now ranked with Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights as one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed by Parliament. [Trevelyan, p.272. As John Bright, the liberal statesman of the next generation, said, "It was not a good Bill, but it was a great Bill when it passed."]
First, the Great Reform Bill eliminated the Sovereign from the election process and the choice of Prime Minister. Slowly evolving for 100 years, this convention was finally confirmed two years later in 1834 when
King William IVdismissed Melbourn as Premier, but then had to recall him when Robert Peelcould not form a working majority. Since then, no Sovereign has tried to impose a Prime Minister on Parliament against its will.
Second, the Bill reduced the power of the Lords by eliminating many of their pocket boroughs and creating new boroughs where they had no influence. Weakened, the Lords were unable to prevent the passage of more comprehensive electoral reforms in 1867, 1884, 1918 and finally, 1928, when universal equal suffrage was achieved. [Smith, pages 454, 468, 486, and 489.] Ultimately, this erosion of political power would lead to the Parliament Act of 1911 that marginalised the Lords' role in the legislative process. It also led to the 20th century convention that a Prime Minister cannot sit in the House of Lords; the last to do so was
Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, from 1895 to 1902. [ The last Prime Minister to be a member of the Lords during any part of his tenure was Alec Douglas-Home, 14th Earl of Home in 1963. Lord Home was the last Prime Minister who was a hereditary peer, but, within days of attaining office, he disclaimed his peerage, abiding by the convention that the Prime Minister should sit in the House of Commons. A junior member of his Conservative Party who had already been selected as candidate in a by-election in a staunch Conservative seat stood aside, allowing Home to contest the by-election, win and thus procure a seat in the lower House.]
Grey's character and bearing during the Reform Bill crisis changed the Premiership. Often called the first "modern Prime Minister", he set both an example and a precedent for his successors. He assumed clear leadership over the Cabinet and became, as Bagehot said in 1867 of the Prime Minister's status, "primas inter paris", "first among equals". Using his Whig victory in 1830 as a mandate for reform, Grey was unrelenting in the pursuit of this goal, using every Parliamentary devise to achieve it. And, although gracious and respectful toward the King, he made it clear that the Sovereign's constitutional duty was to acquiesce to the will of the people and Parliament.
The Loyal Opposition acquiesced in the decision too. There was some talk among disgruntled Tories that they would repeal the Bill once they regained a majority. But in 1834, Robert Peel, the new Conservative leader, put a stop to it when he proclaimed in his
Tamworth Manifestothat the Bill was "a final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question which no friend to the peace and welfare of this country would attempt to disturb". [Pike>, p. 219.] Thus, Peel affirmed the convention that has promoted stability in the British system: the Parliament of the day must respect the decisions made by previous Parliaments.
Populist Prime Ministers - Disraeli and Gladstone
The Premiership was a somewhat reclusive office prior to 1832. The incumbent worked regularly with his Cabinet and other government officials; he occasionally met with the Sovereign, and attended Parliament daily when it was in session during the spring and summer. He never went out on the stump to campaign, even during elections; while in office, he rarely spoke directly to ordinary voters about policies and issues.
After the passage of the Great Reform Bill, the nature of the office changed; Prime Ministers had to go out among the people. The Bill increased the electorate to 717,000. Subsequent legislation (and population growth) raised it to 2 million in 1867, 5.5 million in 1884, 21.4 million in 1918 and 44 million in 1997. As the franchise increased, power shifted to the people and Prime Ministers assumed more responsibilities with respect to party leadership, organising existing members and attracting new ones. The introduction of the penny press and photography in the 19th century, and then radio, motion pictures, television, and the internet in the 20th reinforced this change. It naturally fell on Prime Ministers to motivate and organise their followers, explain party policies, and deliver its “message”. Successful political leaders had to have a new set of skills: to give a good speech, present a favourable image, and interact with a crowd. They became the "voice", the “face” and the "image" of the party and ministry.
Robert Peel, often called the “model Prime Minister”, [Rosebery, p. 27. Lord Rosebery, later a Prime Minister himself, said of Peel: "the model of all Prime Ministers. It is more than doubtful, indeed, if it be possible in this generation, when the burdens of Empire and of office have so incalculably grown, for any Prime Minister to discharge the duties of his high office with the same thoroughness or in the same spirit as Peel . . . Peel kept a strict supervision over every department: he seems to have been master of the business of each and all of them . . . it is probable that no Prime Minister ever fulfilled so completely and thoroughly the functions of the office, parliamentary, administrative, and general as Sir Robert Peel."] was the first to recognise this new role. After the successful Conservative campaign of 1841, J. W. Croker pointed it out in a letter to Peel, "The elections are wonderful, and the curiosity is that all turns on the name of Sir Robert Peel. 'It's the first time that I remember in our history that the people have chosen the first Minister for the Sovereign. Mr. Pitt's case in '84 is the nearest analogy; but then the people only confirmed the Sovereign's choice; here every Conservative candidate professed himself in plain words to be Sir Robert Peel's man, and on that ground was elected." [Hanham, pages 63-64.]
In the next generation, none understood the change better than
Benjamin Disraeliand William Gladstone. Known affectionately by their nicknames “Dizzy” and the “Grand Old Man”, their colourful, sometimes bitter, personal and political rivalry over the issues of their time - Imperialism vs. Anti-Imperialism, expansion of the franchise, labour reform, and Irish Home Rule – spanned almost twenty years until Disraeli’s death in 1881. [ Even after death their rivalry continued. When Disraeli died in 1881, Gladstone proposed a state funeral, but Disraeli's will specified that he have a private funeral and be buried next to his wife. Gladstone replied, "As [Disraeli] lived, so he died — all display, without reality or genuineness." Disraeli, for his part, once said that GOM (the acronym for "Grand Old Man"), really stood for "God's Only Mistake".] Documented by the penny press, photographs and political cartoons, their rivalry linked specific personalities with the Premiership in the public mind and further enhanced its status.
Each created a different public image of himself and his party. Disraeli, who expanded the Empire to protect British interests abroad, cultivated the image of himself as an "Imperialist", making grand gestures such as conferring the title "Empress of India" on Queen Victoria in 1876. Gladstone, who saw little value in the Empire, proposed an anti-Imperialist philosophy (later called "Little England"), and cultivated the image of himself as a "man of the people" by cutting down great oak trees with an axe as a hobby.
Going beyond image, Gladstone went directly to the people by conducting the first political campaign. His
Midlothian Campaign- so called because he stood as a candidate for that county - Gladstone spoke in fields, halls and railway stations to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students, farmers, labourers and middle class workers. Although not the first leader to speak directly to voters - both he and Disraeli had done it before on special occasions - he was the first to canvassed an entire consistency delivering his message to anyone who would listen. The speeches were publicised nationwide so that Gladstone's message became that of the party. Noting its significance, Lord Shaftsbury said, "It is a new thing and a very serious thing to see the Prime Minister on the stump." Disraeli and Victoria thought the tactic was unconstitutional. “Such conduct", the Queen said, "is unheard of and the only excuse is – that he is not quite sane.” [Bigham, p. 318.]
Several 20th century Prime Ministers, such as
David Lloyd Georgeand Winston Churchill, were famous for their oratorical skills on the stump. After the introduction of radio, motion pictures, television, and the internet, many used these new technologies to project an image of themselves to the public and, for the first time, to address the nation as a whole. Stanley Baldwin, a master of the radio broadcast in the 1920s and 1930s, reached a vast audience with his good-neighbourly talks filled with homely advise and simple expressions of pride in the British heritage. [Pike, p. 389.] Churchillalso used the radio to great effect, inspiring, reassuring and informing the people with his speeches during the Second World War. Two recent Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcherand Tony Blair, achieved celebrity status, like actors, actresses and rock stars. "The props in Blair's theatre of celebrity," according to Anthony King, "included . . . his guitar, his casual clothes . . . footballs bounced skilfully off the top of his head . . . and carefully choreographed speeches-cum-performances at Labour Party conferences." [King, pages 319-320.]
The Parliament Act and the premiership: 1911
From its first appearance in the 14th century, Parliament has been a bicameral legislature consisting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Members of the Commons are elected. Those in the Lords are not; they are either Spiritual Lords (prelates of the Anglican Church) or Temporal Lords (hereditary or life Peers of the realm). To translate a bill (a proposed law) into law, Prime Ministers have to guide it through both chambers and obtain the approval of a majority in both. As the Royal influence over ministerial appointments disappeared, the power of the House of Commons rose, and its political superiority over the
House of Lordsbeing established by the Parliament Act 1911.
The House of Lords is considerably less restrictive of the Prime Minister's power. Under the
Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords normally does not seek to oppose any measure promised by the Government in its election manifesto. When the House of Lords does oppose the Prime Minister, it is generally ineffectual in defeating entire Bills (though almost all Bills are successfully modified by the Upper House during their passage through Parliament). Peers (members of the House of Lords) are created by the Sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister; by obtaining the creation of several new peers, the Prime Minister may flood the House of Lords with individuals supportive of his position. The threat of such a tactic was used in 1911 to ensure the passage of the Parliament Act 1911, which, together with the Parliament Act 1949, reduces the House of Lords's powers and establishes the supremacy of the Commons (in particular, the House of Lords can only delay, but not reject, most bills on which the Commons insist).
The Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign, who is bound by constitutional convention to choose the individual most likely to command the support of the House of Commons (normally, the leader of the party with a
pluralityin that body). Should the Prime Minister lose the confidence of the House of Commons, they are morally obliged by similar conventions either to resign or to request the monarch to call a general election. Since the premiership is in some small sense still a " de facto" position, the office's powers are mainly a matter of custom rather than law, deriving from the incumbents ability to give the sovereign binding advice on the appointment of his Cabinet colleagues, as well as from certain uses of the royal prerogativewhich may be exercised directly by the Prime Minister, or by the Monarch on the Prime Minister's advice. Some commentators have pointed out that, in practice, the powers of the office are subject to very few checks, especially in an era when Parliament and the Cabinet are seen as unwilling to challenge dominant Prime Ministers as they are bound by a policy of collective cabinet responsibility.Fact|date=February 2007
The modern premiership: 1911 to the present
The role and power of the Prime Minister have been subject to much change in the last fifty years. There has gradually been a change from Cabinet decision making and deliberation to the dominance of the Prime Minister. As early as 1965, in a new introduction to
Walter Bagehot's classic work The English Constitution,
At the opposite extreme, however, Prime Ministers may dominate the Cabinet so much that they become "Semi-Presidents." Examples of dominant Prime Ministers (more common during the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries) include
William Ewart Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair. The powers of some Prime Ministers waxed or waned, depending upon their own level of energy, political skills or outside events: Ramsay MacDonald, for example, was dominant in his Labour governments, but during his National Government his powers diminished so that by his final years in Downing Street he was merely the figurehead of the government. In modern times, Prime Ministers have never been merely titular; dominant or somewhat dominant personalities are the norm.
Ultimately, however, the Prime Minister will be held responsible by the nation for the consequences of legislation or of general government policy. Margaret Thatcher's party forced her from power after the introduction of the poll tax; Sir Anthony Eden fell from power following the
Suez Crisis; and Neville Chamberlainresigned after being criticised for his handling of negotiations with Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II, and for failing to prevent the fall of Norwayto the Nazi onslaught.
The Prime Minister's powers are also limited by the House of Commons, whose support the Government is obliged to maintain. The House of Commons checks the powers of the Prime Minister through committee hearings and through
Question Time, a weekly occurrence in which the Prime Minister is obliged to respond to the questions of the Leader of the Opposition and other members of the House. In practice, however, a Government with a strong majority need rarely fear "backbench rebellions."
Recent developments and events that may effect the Premiership
Entry of the United Kingdom into the European Union (1973)
Passage of the Human Rights Act (1998)
Devolution of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales
The idea of having a Prime Minister who was a Member of Parliament for a Scottish constituency causes disquiet in some quarters. Conservative MP Alan Duncan told the BBC in 2006 that he was "...beginning to think it is almost impossible now to have a Scottish prime minister because they would be at odds with the basic construction of the British constitution." [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/5137930.stm Tory plan to restrict Scots MPs] bbc.co.uk, July 2, 2006]
The Deputy Prime Minister
More recently, there is also the associated post of Deputy Prime Minister. An officer with such a title need not always exist; rather, the existence of the post is dependent on the form of Cabinet organisation preferred by the Prime Minister and their party. The Deputy Prime Minister does not automatically succeed if a vacancy in the premiership is suddenly created, nor do they generally assume any specific additional powers when the Prime Minister is outside the country. It may be necessary for the Deputy to stand in for the Prime Minister on occasion, for example by taking the dispatch box during Prime Minister's Question Time or by attending international conferences or bilateral [http://www.kprm.gov.pl/english/2130_7446.htm meetings] when the Prime Minister is unavailable. Since the resignation of
John Prescotton 27 June 2007 there has been no Deputy Prime Minister.
In the devolved governments of
Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the position which corresponds with that of Prime Minister is First Minister. (See First Minister of Scotland, First Minister of Wales, and First Minister of Northern Ireland.)
Legal status of the office
The official status of the Prime Minister remains ambiguous. A Prime Minister has virtually no statutory authority in their own right; all the actual business of running the country and spending the budget is (in theory) carried out by the holders of more explicitly-defined Cabinet offices, who are empowered to do so by various Acts of Parliament. The Prime Minister holds at least one of these more tangible ministerial offices himself—normally First Lord of the Treasury—and indeed receives their salary and public accommodation only by virtue of that office.
The title "Prime Minister", however, is not altogether a matter of convention, as in 1905 it was in a sense given official recognition when the "Prime Minister" was named in the order of precedence, outranked, among non-royals, only by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, The Moderator of the Church of Scotland and by the
Lord Chancellor. Furthermore, the office is not entirely without statutory justification, since it has in fact been explicitly named a number of times in emergency wartime legislation. All sorts of official pronouncements are issued from Downing Streetin the name of the "Prime Minister" without further circumlocution or explanation. The first prime minister in this sense is therefore considered by some to have been Henry Campbell-Bannerman, although the term "Prime Minister" first appeared on official documents during the premiership of Benjamin Disraeliand was used informally before then. The first mention of "Prime Minister" in an official government document occurred in a foreign country when Benjamin Disraelisigned the Treaty of Berlin in 1879 as "First Lord of Her Majesty's Treasury and Prime Minister" so that Chancellor Bismark would understand his true authority. Fact|date=August 2008 The title has been used since then in documents, letters and conversation (and, in conversation at least, may have been used before then). In 1905 the title "Prime Minister" was noted in a royal warrant that placed the Prime Minister, mentioned as such, in the order of precedencein Britain immediately after the Archbishop of York. By this time legal recognition of the title seems to have occurred and it was later mentioned in the ChequersEstate Act 1917, and the Ministers of the Crown Act 1937. [Smith, pages 372-373]
The first Act of Parliament to mention the position of Prime Minister was the Chequers Estate Act, which received the
Royal Assenton December 20, 1917. It dealt with the gift to the Crown of the Chequers Estate by Sir Arthur and Lady Lee, for use as a country home for future Prime Ministers.
Finally, the Ministers of the Crown Act, which received the Royal Assent on July 1, 1937, gave official recognition to the position of Prime Minister and made provision for paying "the First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister" — the former being the office that since the 18th century, has usually been held by the Prime Minister:
"To give statutory recognition to the existence of the position of Prime Minister, and to the historic link between the Premiership and the office of First Lord of the Treasury, by providing in respect to that position and office a salary of…"
The Act made a certain distinction between "position" (Prime Minister) and "office" (First Lord of the Treasury), emphasising the unique character of the position and recognising the existence of the Cabinet. Nevertheless, in spite of this recognition, the brass plate outside the Prime Minister's front door still bears the title of "First Lord of the Treasury."
By convention, as noted above, the Prime Minister also holds the office of First Lord of the Treasury. The only Prime Ministers who have not also served as First Lord for a significant part of their administrations are
William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham(who was Lord Privy Seal) and, for most of his three premierships, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury(who was either Foreign Secretary or Lord Privy Seal except for the first few months of his second premiership when he was First Lord). Since Lord Salisbury's retirement in 1902, every Prime Minister has also been First Lord of the Treasury. Some have held yet more offices; for example until 1942 nearly every Prime Minister was either Leader of the House of Commonsor Leader of the House of Lords, depending upon the House in which they sat. Some have also held specific ministerial posts; for example Ramsay MacDonaldwas both First Lord and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairsduring his first premiership in 1924. Since the 1960s every prime minister has also been Minister for the Civil Service.
Characteristics of Prime Ministers and their ministries
There is no term of office for a prime minister; the prime minister holds office "at Her Majesty's pleasure". However, the need for the government to gain supply (control of exchequer funds) requires that the government be answerable to, and acceptable to, the House of Commons, which means that, in reality, the convention "at her Majesty's pleasure" means "at the pleasure of the House of Commons". Whenever the office of Prime Minister falls vacant, the Sovereign is responsible for appointing the new successor; the appointment is formalised at a ceremony known as
Kissing Hands. In accordance with unwritten constitutional conventions, the Sovereign must appoint the individual most likely to maintain the support of the House of Commons: usually, the leader of the party which has a majority in that House. If no party has a majority (an unlikely occurrence, given the United Kingdom's First Past the Post electoral system), two or more groups may form a coalition, whose agreed leader is then appointed Prime Minister. The majority party becomes "Her Majesty's Government," and the next largest party becomes "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition". The head of the largest Opposition party becomes the Leader of the Opposition and holds the title "Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition". By tradition, before a new Prime Minister can enter 10 Downing Streetfor the first time as its occupant, they are required to announce to the country and the world that they have kissed hands with the reigning monarch, and thus has become Prime Minister. This is usually done by saying words to the effect of:
:"Her Majesty the Queen " [His Majesty the King] " has asked me to form a government and I have accepted." [ [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQ3WJRvZeN8 Margaret Thatcher enters 10 Downing Street] ,
YouTube] [ [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TezCBzlB3d8 Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrives at Downing Street] , YouTube] Although it wasn't required, Tony Blair also said these words after he was re-elected in 2001 and 2005.
The period in office of a Prime Minister is not linked to the term of Members of the House of Commons. A prime minister once appointed continues in office until either they resign, are dismissed (in reality something not likely to happen except in exceptional circumstances) or die. Resignation can be triggered off by the passage of a
Motion of No Confidenceor by rejecting a Motion of Confidencein the House of Commons. In those situations, a prime minister must either resign or seek a dissolution. A Loss of Supplyalso amounts to a loss of confidence. Such defeats for the Government, however, are rare; there have only been three defeats on confidence issues in the twentieth century: twice in 1924, and once in 1979. The first in 1924 took place immediately after an inconclusive election result and led to an immediate change of government, but in the other two cases a general election was called (and in both, the incumbent government was defeated).
Where a prime minister loses a general election modern constitution conventions dictate that that prime minister immediately submit their resignation. Previous precedent, until the early twentieth century, dictated that a prime minister wait until actually defeated on their legislative programme in a vote on the
Speech from the Thronebefore resigning. This option has never entirely been discarded, and might be adopted again if, say, a General Election produced a Parliament with no overall majority. For instance, something of the kind occurred after the general election of February 1974, which did not produce an absolute majority for any party, Edward Heathopted not to resign immediately, instead negotiating with a third party (the Liberal Party) to form a coalition. Heath did eventually resign when the negotiations failed.
Spencer Percevalby John Bellinghamin 1812 — the only time a British Prime Minister has been murdered while in office.] Contrary to myth a prime minister is not "reappointed" after every general election. They continue in office, but may use the opportunity to reshuffle the cabinet, with only those ministers moved or brought in going to the Palace for appointment. As a result, though prime minister during a number of parliaments in succession, Margaret Thatcher was only actually appointed prime minister once, in 1979.
Whatever the reason—the expiry of Parliament's five-year term, the choice of the Prime Minister, or a Government defeat in the House of Commons—the dissolution is followed by general elections. If their party has lost a majority in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is compelled to resign (or request a dissolution, but the Sovereign is not compelled to accept such a request). The leader of the party or coalition now in the majority is then appointed Prime Minister by the Sovereign. The custom that requires the Prime Minister to resign immediately after an electoral loss is only of relatively recent invention. Previously, Prime Ministers had the option of meeting Parliament, and then inviting an effective vote of confidence.
As well as losing the confidence of the House of Commons, prime ministers may also in effect be forced to resign if they lose the confidence of their party. This was what led Margaret Thatcher to resign in 1990. The last Prime Minister to die in office was
Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston(in 1865). The only Prime Minister to be assassinated was Spencer Perceval(in 1812).
Powers and constraints
The Prime Minister's chief duty is to "form a Government"—that is to say, to create a Cabinet or Ministry which will sustain the support of the House of Commons—when commissioned by the Sovereign. They generally co-ordinate the policies and activities of the Cabinet and the various Government departments, acting as the "face" of Her Majesty's Government. The Sovereign exercises much of their royal prerogative on the Prime Minister's advice. (For the prerogative of dissolving Parliament, see "Term" above.)
Commander-in-Chiefof the British Armed Forcesis the Sovereign. Under long-standing parliamentary custom and practice, however, the Prime Minister holds "de facto" decision-making power over the deployment and disposition of British forces, hence the Commander-in-Chief without portfolio. The Prime Minister can authorise, but not directly order, the use of Britain's nuclear weapons.
The Prime Minister also has a wide range of powers of appointment. In most cases, the actual appointments are made by the Sovereign, but the selection and recommendation is made by the Prime Minister. Ministers, Privy Counsellors,
Ambassadors and High Commissioners, senior civil servants, senior military officers, members of important committees and commissions, and several other officials are selected, and in some cases may be removed, by the Prime Minister. Furthermore, peerages, knighthoods, and other honours are bestowed by the Sovereign only on the advice of the Prime Minister. He also formally advises the Sovereign on the appointment of Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England, but his discretion is limited by the existence of the Crown Nominations Commission. The appointment of senior judges, while on the advice of the Prime Minister for constitutional reasons, is now on the basis of recommendations from independent bodies. The only important British honours over which the Prime Minister does not have control are the Orders of the Garter, Thistle, and Merit, and the Royal Victorian Order, which are all within the "personal gift" of the Sovereign. The extent of the Sovereign's ability to influence the nature of the Prime Ministerial advice is unknown, but probably varies depending upon the personal relationship between the Sovereign and the Prime Minister of the day.
Members of Parliament may hold ministerial offices (up to 90 paid offices, of varying levels of seniority, exist), and may fear removal for failing to support the Prime Minister. Party discipline, furthermore, is very strong; a Member of Parliament may be expelled from their party for failing to support the Government on important issues, and although this will not mean they must resign as an MP, it would make re-election difficult for most. Restraints imposed by the House of Commons grow weaker when the Government's party enjoys a large majority in that House. In general, however, the Prime Minister and their colleagues may secure the House's support for almost any bill.
However, even a government with a healthy majority can on occasion find it is unable to pass legislation due to opposition from MPs. For example, on January 31, 2006 Tony Blair's Government was defeated over proposals to outlaw religious hatred, while on November 9, 2005 it was defeated over plans which would have allowed police to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge. On other occasions, the Government may be forced to alter its proposals in order to avoid defeat in the Commons, as Tony Blair's Government did in February 2006 over education reforms.
title=Blair defends school reform climbdown.
date=February 7, 2006
Unlike in the United States there is no minimum age specific to the Office of Prime Minister other than that for a member of parliament (18). This is because the United Kingdom elects a party into government and not a person to be its leader.
Precedence and privileges
The Prime Minister had no special precedence until the order of precedence first recognised the office in 1905. Throughout the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister outranks all others except the Royal Family, the
Lord Chancellor, and senior ecclesiastical functionaries (in England and Wales, the Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York; in Scotland, the Lord High Commissioner and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; in Northern Ireland, the Anglican and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church).
The Prime Minister draws their salary not as Prime Minister, but as First Lord of the Treasury. At present the office-holder receives £127,334 in addition to their salary of £60,277 as a Member of Parliament. [ [http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp2006/rp06-047.pdf House of Commons Library: Research Paper - Parliamentary pay and allowances] ] Until 2006 the
Lord Chancellorwas the highest paid member of the government ahead of the Prime Minister. This reflected the Lord Chancellor's position at the top of the judicial pay scale, as British judges are on the whole better paid than British politicians and until 2005 the Lord Chancellor was both politician and the head of the judiciary. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005stripped the Lord Chancellor of his judicial functions and his salary was reduced below the Prime Minister's.
The Prime Minister traditionally resides at
10 Downing Streetin London, which George II offered to Sir Robert Walpole as a personal gift. Walpole, however, only accepted it as the official home of the First Lord, taking up his residence there in 1735. The Prime Minister only resides in 10 Downing Street in their capacity as First Lord; the few nineteenth century Prime Ministers who were not First Lords were forced to live elsewhere. Though most First Lords have lived in 10 Downing Street, some preferred to reside in their private residences. This happened when they were often aristocrats with grand Central Londonhomes of their own, such as Palmerston's Cambridge Houseand seems unlikely to occur again. Furthermore, some such as Harold Macmillanand John Majorhave lived in Admiralty House whilst 10 Downing Street was undergoing renovations or repairs.
Adjacent to Downing Street is
11 Downing Street, the home of the Second Lord of the Treasury (who, in modern times, has also filled the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer). After he became Prime Minister in 1997, Tony Blair found 10 Downing Street too small for his large family, and he swapped residences with the Chancellor and Second Lord, Gordon Brown, then a bachelor. However, the Prime Ministerial offices are still maintained in Number 10. 12 Downing Streetis the residence of the Chief Whip.
The Prime Minister is also entitled to use the country house of
The Prime Minister, like other Cabinet Ministers and senior Members of Parliament, is customarily a member of the Privy Council; thus, they become entitled to prefix "
The Right Honourable" to their name. Membership of the Council is retained for life (unless the individual resigns it, or is expelled—both rare phenomena). It is a constitutional convention that only a Privy Counsellor can be appointed Prime Minister, but invariably all potential candidates have already attained this status. The only occasion when a non-Privy Councillor was the natural appointment was Ramsay MacDonald in 1924, but the issue was resolved by appointing him to the Council immediately prior to his appointment as Prime Minister.
It is customary for the Sovereign to grant a Prime Minister some honour or dignity when that individual retires from politics. The honour commonly, but not invariably, bestowed on Prime Ministers is membership of the United Kingdom's most senior order of chivalry, the
Order of the Garter. The practice of creating retired Prime Ministers Knights of the Garter has been fairly prevalent since the middle-nineteenth century. On the retirement of a Prime Minister who is Scottish, it is likely that the primarily Scottish honour of the Order of the Thistlewill be used instead of the Order of the Garter, which is generally regarded as an English honour.
It has also been common for Prime Ministers to be granted
peerages upon their retirement as a Member of Parliament, which elevates the individual to the House of Lords. For this reason, the peerage is rarely awarded immediately on the Prime Minister's resignation from that post, unless they step down as an MP at the same time. Formerly, the peerage bestowed was usually an earldom(which was always hereditary), with Churchill offered a dukedom. However, since the 1960s, hereditary peerages have generally been eschewed, and life peerages have been preferred, although in the 1980s Harold Macmillanwas created Earl of Stocktonon retirement. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson, James Callaghanand Margaret Thatcheraccepted life peerages. However, neither Edward Heathnor John Majoraccepted peerages of any kind on stepping down as MPs. Margaret Thatcher's son Mark is a baronet, which he inherited from his father Denis, but this is not a peerage.
Of the nineteen Prime Ministers since 1902, eight have been created both peers and Knights of the Garter; three were ennobled but not knighted; three became Knights of the Garter but not peers; and five were not granted either honour— in two cases due to their death while still active in politics; two others declined honours.
In November 2004, the polling company MORI, in association with the
University of Leeds, questioned 258 political science academics in the United Kingdom (139 of whom replied) on the perceived success of twentieth century Prime Ministers. The [http://www.mori.com/polls/2004/leeds.shtml results] showed that Clement Attleewas rated as most successful, followed by Churchill and Lloyd George. Anthony Edenwas rated as the least successful. In August 2006, BBC History Magazine historian, Francis Beckettranked each 20th century Prime Minister on how well they implemented their policies. Margaret Thatcherand Clement Attleetopped this poll, with Anthony Edenand Neville Chamberlaincoming bottom. Beckett said that Lady Thatcher, "took one sort of society, and turned it into another".cite journal|title=Best PMs Revealed|url=http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com/newsread.asp?id=22553|publisher=BBC History Magazine|date=2006-08-29|accessdate=2008-06-10]
Form of address
According to the
Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Prime Minister is made a Privy Counsellor as a result of taking office and should be addressed by the official title prefixed by "The Right Honourable" and not by a personal name.
This form of address is employed at formal occasions but is rarely used by the media. Tony Blair, the previous Prime Minister, was frequently referred to in print as "Prime Minister Blair" (incorrect), "Mr Blair", "Tony Blair" or "Blair".cite journal | month=September 11 | year=2006| pages=1–2 |title=Tony has issued an omerta| journal=The Times] Colleagues sometimes referred to him simply as "Tony". He was usually addressed as "Prime Minister".
Since 'Prime Minister' is a position, not a title, he/she should be referred to as "the Prime Minister" or (eg.) "Mr. Brown".
List of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom
Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Historical rankings of British Prime Ministers
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Prime Minister's Questions
Records of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom
Spouses of the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom
* Detailed timeline of UK Prime Ministers from Lord Palmerston to Gordon Brown
List of UK Prime Ministers' Burial Places
10 Downing Street
*cite book |title=The English Constitution |last=Bagehot |first=Walter |year=1963 |publisher=Wm. Collins Sons & Ltd., first published in 1867
*cite book |title=English Constitutional History |last=Chrimes |first=S. B. |year=1947 |publisher=Oxford University Press, Oxford
*cite book |title=The Growth of Responsible Government from James the First to Victoria |last=Dodd |first=A. H. |year=1956 |publisher=Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
*Farnborough, Thomas Erskine, 1st Baron. (1896). "Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third," 11th ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
*cite book |title=His Majesty's Opposition |last=Foord |first=Archibald S. |year=1964 |publisher=Clarendon Press, Oxford
*cite book |title=England Is Here - Speeches and Writings of the Prime Ministers of England |last=Hanchant |first=W.L. |year=1943 |publisher=Bodley Head
*cite book |title=The British Constitution |last=King |first=Anthony |year=2007 |publisher=Oxford University Press, Oxford
*cite book |title=Constitutional and Legal History of England |last=Knappen |first=M. M. |year=1942 |publisher=Harcourt, Brace & Company
*cite book |title=The Victorian Constitution, Conventions, Usages and Continguencies |last=Le May |first=G. H. L. |year=1979 |publisher=Duckworth
*cite book |title=The Governance of England |last=Low |first=S. |year=1904 |publisher=T. Fisher Unwin, London
*cite book |title=English Political Institutions |last=Marriott |first=J. A. R. |year=1925 |publisher=Oxford University Press, Oxford
*cite book |title=Britain's Prime Ministers: From Walpole to Wilson |last=Pike |first=E. Royston |year=1968 |publisher=Odhams Books
*cite book |title=Treasury, 1660-1870: The Foundations of Control |last=Roseveare |first=Henry |year=1973 |publisher=Allen and Unwin
*cite book |title=A Constitutional and Legal History of England |last=Smith |first=Goldwin |year=1990 |publisher=Dorset Press
* [http://www.number-10.gov.uk/ 10 Downing Street, Official Website.]
* [http://britishconstitution.blogspot.com/search/label/The%20Prime%20Minister The British Constitution] A general introduction to the constitutional function of the UK Prime Minister
* [http://www.parliament.uk/ Parliament of the United Kingdom. (2004). Official Website.]
* [http://www.archontology.org/nations/uk/bpm/ Principal Ministers of the Crown: 1730–2006]
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
Look at other dictionaries:
Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom — of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Arms of Her Majesty s Government … Wikipedia
Prime Minister of the United States — There is no Prime Minister of the United States, but the term Prime Minister has sometimes been applied, either as a pejorative term, a bon mot , or through ignorance, to an official within the government of the United States.During and after the … Wikipedia
Spouses of the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom — The spouse of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has no formal or constitutional role in the British political system. This is partly a reflection of the fact that the British Prime Minister is not the head of state (see Monarchy of the… … Wikipedia
List of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom — This is a list of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, and its predecessor state the Kingdom of Great Britain, from when the first Prime Minister (in the modern sense), Robert Walpole, took office in 1721, until the present day. The office is… … Wikipedia
Records of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom — Records of Prime Ministers of Great Britain and Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom: Period of service The Prime Minister with the longest single term was Sir Robert Walpole, lasting 20 years and 314 days from 4 April 1721 until 11 February… … Wikipedia
List of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom by term length — This list of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom lists each Prime Minister in order of term length. Rank by time in office ee also* List of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom * William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath (sometimes listed as a prime… … Wikipedia
List of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom (graphical) — This is a graphical list of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom from when the first Prime Minister (in the modern sense), Robert Walpole, took office in 1721, until the present day.18th centuryImageSize = width:800 height:auto… … Wikipedia
Prime Minister of the Netherlands — Minister President Coat of Arms … Wikipedia
Nuclear weapons and the United Kingdom — United Kingdom Nuclear program start date 10 April 1940 First nuclear weapon test 2 October 1952 First fusion weapon test … Wikipedia
Foreign relations of the United Kingdom — The United Kingdom (UK) is a key player in international politics, with interests throughout the world. The former British Empire, notably through its successor, the Commonwealth of Nations, links the UK with many of the world s nations in one… … Wikipedia