Her Majesty's Government
in the United Kingdom
. The Prime Minister and Cabinet
(consisting of all the most senior ministers
, who are government department heads) are collectively accountable for their policies and actions to the Sovereign
, to Parliament
, to their political party and ultimately to the electorate
1721 Sir Robert Walpole enters office as the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom under King George I.
1742 Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, becomes British Prime Minister.
1743 Henry Pelham becomes British Prime Minister.
1782 Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham becomes Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
1830 Charles Grey, (2nd Earl Grey), became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
1908 H. H. Asquith of the Liberal Party takes office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, succeeding Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
1924 Ramsay MacDonald becomes the first Labour Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
1943 World War II: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set Monday, May 1, 1944 as the date for the Normandy landings ("D-Day"). It would later be delayed over a month due to bad weather.
1943 British Overseas Airways Corporation Flight 777 is shot down over the Bay of Biscay by German Junkers Ju 88s, killing actor Leslie Howard and leading to speculation the downing was an attempt to kill British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
1945 World War II: the leaders of the three Allied nations, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill, President of the United States Harry S Truman and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, meet in the German city of Potsdam to decide the future of a defeated Germany.
Her Majesty's Government
in the United Kingdom
. The Prime Minister and Cabinet
(consisting of all the most senior ministers
, who are government department heads) are collectively accountable for their policies and actions to the Sovereign
, to Parliament
, to their political party and ultimately to the electorate
. The , David Cameron
, leader of the Conservative Party
, was appointed on 11 May 2010.
The position of Prime Minister was not created; it evolved slowly and erratically over three hundred years due to numerous acts of Parliament, political developments, and accidents of history. The office is therefore best understood from a historical perspective. The origins of the position are found in constitutional changes that occurred during the Revolutionary Settlement (1688–1720) and the resulting shift of political power from the Sovereign to Parliament. Although the Sovereign was not stripped of his or her ancient prerogatives and legally remained the head of government, politically it gradually became necessary for him or her to govern through a Prime Minister who could command a majority in Parliament.
By the 1830s the Westminster System of government (or Cabinet Government) had emerged; the Prime Minister had became "first among equals" in the Cabinet and head of Her Majesty's Government. The political position of Prime Minister was enhanced by the development of modern political parties, the introduction of mass communication (inexpensive newspapers, radio, television and the internet), and photography. By the turn of the 20th century the modern premiership had emerged; the office had become the pre-eminent position in the constitutional hierarchy vis-a-vis the Sovereign, Parliament and Cabinet.
As leader of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister's authority was further enhanced by the Parliament Act of 1911 which marginalised the influence of the House of Lords
in the law-making process. The accretion of so much political power in one position gave rise to concerns that the office had become too "presidential", and that the Prime Minister was an "elected Monarch". Late in the 20th century several acts of Parliament and political changes placed some limits on the Premier's authority.
AuthorityAs the "Head of Her Majesty's Government" the modern Prime Minister leads the Cabinet (the Executive
). In addition the Prime Minister leads a major political party and generally commands a majority in the House of Commons (the lower house of the Legislature
). As such the incumbent wields both legislative and executive powers. Under the British system there is a unity of powers rather than separation
. In the House of Commons, the Prime Minister guides the law-making process with the goal of enacting the legislative agenda of their political party. In an executive capacity the Prime Minister appoints (and may dismiss) all other cabinet members and ministers
, and co-ordinates the policies and activities of all government departments, and the staff of the Civil Service. The Prime Minister also acts as the public "face" and "voice" of Her Majesty's Government, both at home and abroad. Solely upon the advice of the Prime Minister, the Sovereign exercises many statutory and prerogative powers: they include the dissolution of Parliament; high judicial, political, official and Church of England
ecclesiastical appointments; and the conferral of peerages, knighthoods, decorations and other honours.
Constitutional backgroundThe British system of government is based on an "unwritten" constitution
, meaning that it is not codified into a single document. Scattered across 800 years, the British constitution consists of many documents—such as Magna Carta
(1215), the Great Reform Bill (1832), and the Parliament Act
(1911)—and, most important for the evolution of the office of Prime Minister, customs known as convention
s that became accepted practice. In 1841, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne explained this feature of the British constitution in a letter to young Queen Victoria:
- All the political part of the English Constitution is fully understood, and distinctly stated in Blackstone and many other books, but the Ministerial part, the work of conducting the executive government, has rested so much on practice, on usage, on understanding, that there is no particular publication to which reference can be made for the explanation and description of it. It is to be sought in debates, in protests, in letters, in memoirs, and wherever it can be picked up.
Almost one hundred years later, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith made the same point in his memoirs:
- In this country we live . . . under an unwritten Constitution. It is true that we have on the Statute-book great instruments like Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, and the Bill of Rights which define and secure many of our rights and privileges; but the great bulk of our constitutional liberties and . . . our constitutional practices do not derive their validity and sanction from any Bill which has received the formal assent of the King, Lords and Commons. They rest on usage, custom, convention, often of slow growth in their early stages, not always uniform, but which in the course of time received universal observance and respect.
Until the 20th century the relationship between the Prime Minister vis-a-vis the Sovereign, Parliament and Cabinet was defined entirely by these unwritten conventions of the constitution. Despite its growing dominance in the constitutional hierarchy, the Premiership was given little formal recognition; the legal fiction was maintained that the Sovereign still governed directly. For example, many of the Prime Minister's executive and legislative powers are actually “royal prerogative
s” and still formally vested in the Head of State, the Sovereign
Under this arrangement Britain might appear to have two executives: the Prime Minister and Sovereign. The concept of "the Crown
" resolves this paradox. The Crown symbolises the state’s authority to govern: to make laws and execute them, impose taxes and collect them, declare war and make peace. Before the "Glorious Revolution
" of 1688 the Sovereign wore the Crown and exercised the powers it symbolises. Afterwards Parliament gradually forced Sovereigns to assume a neutral political position. Parliament 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 still wears the Crown and her prerogative powers are still legally intact,The Sovereign's prerogative powers are sometimes called reserve powers. They include the sole authority to dismiss a Prime Minister and government of the day in extremely rare and exceptional circumstances, and other essential powers (such as the veto, and summoning, proroguing and dissolving Parliament) to preserve the stability of the nation. Reserve powers are available to her to use without the consent of Parliament. She also, through her various Governor Generals in the Commonwealth nations, has various and differed reserve powers in each realm. Reserve powers, in practice, are the court of absolute last resort in resolving situations that fundamentally threaten the security and stability of the nation as a whole and are almost never used. Elizabeth II has never used her reserve powers. Parliament has removed her from everyday governance, leaving her in practice with three constitutional rights: to be kept informed, to advise, and to warn.
Revolutionary settlementBecause the Premiership was not intentionally created, there is no exact date when its evolution began. A meaningful starting point, however, is 1688-9 when James II
and the Parliament of England
confirmed 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)
. Known collectively as the Revolutionary Settlement, these acts transformed the constitution, shifting the balance of power from the Sovereign to Parliament. They also provided the basis for the evolution of the office of Prime Minister, which did not exist at that time.
Treasury BenchThe Revolutionary Settlement gave the Commons control over finances and legislation and changed the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature. For want of money, Sovereigns had to summon Parliament annually and could no longer dissolve or prorogue it without its advice and consent. Parliament became a permanent feature of political life. The veto fell into disuse because Sovereigns feared that if they denied legislation Parliament would deny them money. No Sovereign has denied royal assent
since Queen Anne vetoed the Scottish Militia Bill
), the Chancellor of the Exchequer
(responsible for The Budget
) and other senior members of the Cabinet sit on the Treasury bench and present policies in much the same way Ministers did late in the 17th century.
Standing Order 66After the Revolution there was a constant threat that non-government members of Parliament would ruin the country's finances by proposing ill-considered money bills. Vying for control to avoid chaos the Crown's Ministers 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." On 11 June 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 (though renumbered as no. 48), essentially unchanged for three hundred years.
Empowering Ministers with sole financial initiative had an immediate and lasting impact. Apart from achieving its intended purpose – to stabilise the budgetary process – it gave the Crown a leadership role in the Commons; and, 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 Ministerial responsibility and accountability.
The term "Prime Minister" appears at this time as an unofficial title for the leader of the government, usually 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 Godolphin
and Robert Harley
, Queen Anne's
Lord Treasurers and chief ministers. Since 1721, every head of the Sovereign's government – with one exception in the 18th century (William Pitt the Elder) and one in the 19th (Lord Salisbury
) – has been First Lord of the Treasury.
Beginnings of the Prime Minister's party leadershipThe modern Prime Minister is the leader of a major political party with millions of followers. In the general election of 1997, for example, 13.5 million people voted for the Labour Party
led by Tony Blair
; 9.6 million for the Conservative Party
, led by John Major
, the previous Prime Minister; and, 5.2 million for the Liberal Democrat Party
led by Paddy Ashdown
. Generally agreeing on policies, party leaders and their supporters suppress their differences of opinion at the polls for the sake of gaining a majority of seats in the Commons and being able to form a government.
Political parties first appeared during the Exclusion Crisis of 1678–1681. The Whigs, who believed in limited monarchy, wanted to exclude James Stuart
from succeeding to the throne because he was a Catholic. The Tories
, who believed in the "Divine Right of Kings
", defended James' hereditary claim. These parties dominated British politics for over 150 years, with the Whigs evolving into the Liberal Party
and the Tories into the Conservative. Even today, Conservatives are often called "Tories".
Political parties were not well organised or disciplined in the 17th century. They were more like factions with "members" drifting in and out, collaborating temporarily on issues when it was to their advantage, then disbanding when it was not. A major deterrent to the development of opposing parties was the idea that there could only be one "King's Party" and to oppose it would be disloyal or even treasonous. This idea lingered throughout the 18th century. Nevertheless it became possible at the end of the 17th century to identify Parliaments and Ministries as being either "Whig" or "Tory" in composition.
CabinetThe modern Prime Minister is also the leader of the Cabinet. A convention of the constitution, the modern Cabinet is a group of ministers who formulate policies. As the political heads of government departments Cabinet Ministers ensure that policies are carried out by permanent civil servants. Although the modern Prime Minister selects Ministers, appointment still rests with the Sovereign. With the Prime Minister as its leader, the Cabinet forms the executive branch of government.Once in office, the Prime Minister fills not only Cabinet level positions but many other government offices (up to 90 appointments), selected mostly from the House of Commons, distributing them to party members, partly as a reward for their loyalty. The power to make so many appointments to government offices is one of the most effective means the Prime Minister has of maintaining party discipline in the Commons.
The term "Cabinet" first appears after the Revolutionary Settlement to describe those ministers who conferred privately with the Sovereign. The growth of the Cabinet met with widespread complaint and opposition because its meetings were often held in secret and it excluded the ancient Privy Council from the Sovereign's circle of advisers, reducing it to an honorary body. The early Cabinet, like that of today, included the Treasurer and other department heads who sat on the Treasury bench. However, it might also include individuals who were not members of Parliament such as household officers (i.e. the Master of the Horse) and members of the royal family. The exclusion of non-members of Parliament from the Cabinet was essential to the development of ministerial accountability and responsibility.
Both William and Anne appointed and dismissed Cabinet members, attended meetings, made decisions, and followed up on actions. Relieving the Sovereign of these responsibilities and gaining control over the Cabinet's composition was an essential part of evolution of the Premiership. This process began after the Hanoverian Succession. Although George I
(1714–1727) attended Cabinet meetings at first, after 1717 he withdrew because he did not speak English and was bored with the discussions. George II
(1727–1760) occasionally presided at Cabinet meetings but his grandson, George III
(1760–1820), is known to have attended only two during his 60 year reign. Thus, the convention that Sovereigns do not attend Cabinet meetings was established primarily through royal indifference to the everyday tasks of governance. The Prime Minister became responsible for calling meetings, presiding, taking notes, and reporting to the Sovereign. These simple executive tasks naturally gave the Prime Minister ascendancy over his Cabinet colleagues.
Although the first three Hanoverians rarely attended Cabinet meetings they insisted on their prerogatives to appoint and dismiss ministers and to direct policy even if from outside the Cabinet. It was not until late in the 18th century that Prime Ministers gained control over Cabinet composition (see section Emergence of Cabinet Government below).
"One Party Government"British governments (or Ministries) are generally formed by one party. The Prime Minister and Cabinet are usually all members of the same political party, almost always the one that has a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Coalition governments (a ministry that consists of representatives from two or more parties) and minority governments (a one-party ministry formed by a party that does not command a majority in the Commons) are relatively rare. "One party government", as this system is sometimes called, has been the general rule for almost three hundred years.
Early in his reign, William
(1689–1702) preferred "Mixed Ministries" (or coalitions) consisting of both Tories and Whigs. William thought this composition would dilute the power of any one party and also give him the benefit of differing points of view. However, this approach did not work well because the members could not agree on a leader or on policies, and often worked at odds with each other.
In 1697, William formed a homogeneous Whig ministry. Known as the Junto, this government is often cited as the first true Cabinet because its members were all Whigs, reflecting the majority composition of the Commons.
Anne (1702–1714) followed this pattern but preferred Tory Cabinets. This approach worked well as long as Parliament was also predominantly Tory. However, in 1708, when the Whigs obtained a majority, Anne did not call on them to form a government, refusing to accept the idea that politicians could force themselves on her merely because their party had a majority. She never parted with an entire Ministry or accepted an entirely new one regardless of the results of an election. Anne preferred to retain a minority government rather than be dictated to by Parliament. Consequently, her chief ministers Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin
and Robert Harley
, who were called "Prime Minister" by some, had difficulty executing policy in the face of a hostile Parliament.
William's and Anne's experiments with the political composition of the Cabinet illustrated the strengths of one party government and the weaknesses of coalition and minority governments. Nevertheless, it was not until the 1830s that the constitutional convention was established that the Sovereign must select the Prime Minister (and Cabinet) from the party whose views reflect those of the majority in Parliament. Since then, most ministries have reflected this one party rule.
Despite the "one party" convention, Prime Ministers may still be called upon to lead either minority or coalition governments. A minority government
may be formed as a result of a "hung parliament
" in which no single party commands a majority in the House of Commons after a general election or the death, resignation or defection of existing members. By convention the serving Prime Minister is given first opportunity to reach agreements that will allow them to survive a vote of confidence in the House and continue to govern. The last minority government was led by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson
for eight months after the February 1974 general election
produced a hung parliament. In the October 1974 general election
, the Labour Party gained 18 seats, giving Wilson a majority of three.
A hung parliament may also lead to the formation of a coalition government
in which two or more parties negotiate a joint programme to command a majority in the Commons. Coalitions have also been formed during times of national crisis such as war. Under this circumstance, the parties agree to temporarily set aside their political differences and unite to face the national crisis. Coalitions are rare; since 1721, there have been fewer than a dozen. When the general election of 2010 produced a hung parliament, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties agreed to form Her Majesty's current coalition government, the first in seventy years. The last Coalition in the UK before 2010 was led by Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill
during most of the Second World War from May 1940 to May 1945. Clement Attlee
, the leader of the Labour Party, served as Deputy Prime Minister.
Treasury CommissionThe Premiership 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 George I succeeded to the English throne in 1714, his German ministers advised him to leave the office of Lord High Treasurer
vacant because those who had held it in recent years 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 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 Lord High Treasurer 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, though when subordinate legislation requires the consent of the Treasury it is still two of the Junior Lords who sign on its behalf.See e.g. the various orders prescribing fees to be taken in public offices
"First" Prime MinisterSince the office was not created, there is no "first" Prime Minister. However, the honorary appellation is traditionally given to Sir Robert Walpole
who became First Lord of the Treasury in 1721.
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. First, recognising that the Sovereign could no longer govern directly but was still the nominal head of the government, he insisted that he was nothing more than the "King's Servant". Second, recognising that power had shifted to the Commons, he conducted the nation's business there and made it dominant over the Lords in all matters. Third, recognising that the Cabinet had become the executive and must be united, he dominated the other members and demanded their complete support for his policies. Fourth, recognising that political parties were the source of ministerial strength, he led the Whig party and maintained discipline. In the Commons, he insisted on the support of all Whig members, especially those who held office. Finally, he set an example for future Prime Ministers by resigning his offices in 1742 after a vote of confidence, which he won by just 3 votes. This slim majority undermined his power even though he still retained the confidence of the Sovereign.
Ambivalence and denialFor all his contributions, Walpole was not a Prime Minister in the modern sense. The King—not Parliament—chose him; and the King—not Walpole—chose the Cabinet. Walpole set an example, not a precedent, and few followed his example. For over 40 years after Walpole's fall in 1742, there was widespread ambivalence about the position. In some cases, the Prime Minister was a figurehead with power being wielded by other individuals; in others there was a reversion to the "chief minister" model of earlier times in which the Sovereign actually governed. At other times, there appeared to be two prime ministers. During Britain's participation in the Seven Years War
, for example, the powers of government were divided equally between the Duke of Newcastle and William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham
, leading to them both alternatively being described as Prime Minister. Furthermore, many thought that the title "Prime Minister" usurped the Sovereign's constitutional position as "head of the government" and that it was an affront to other ministers because they were all appointed by and equally responsible to the Sovereign.
For these reasons there was a reluctance to use the title. Although Walpole is now called the "first" Prime Minister, the title was not commonly used during his tenure. Walpole himself denied it. In 1741, during the attack that led to Walpole's downfall, Samuel Sandys declared that "According to our Constitution we can have no sole and prime minister." In his 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." George Grenville
, Prime Minister in the 1760s, said it was "an odious title" and never used it. Lord North, the reluctant head of the King's Government during the American War of Independence, "would never suffer himself to be called Prime Minister, because it was an office unknown to the Constitution."The 18th-century ambivalence causes problems for researchers trying to identify who was a Prime Minister and who was not. Every list of Prime Ministers may omit certain politicians. For instance, unsuccessful attempts to form ministries—such as the two-day government formed by the Earl of Bath
in 1746, often dismissed as the "Silly Little Ministry
"—may be included in a list or omitted, depending on the criteria selected.
Denials of the Premiership's legal existence continued throughout the 19th century. In 1806, for example, one member of the Commons said, "the Constitution abhors the idea of a prime minister". In 1829, Lord Lansdowne
said, "nothing could be more mischievous or unconstitutional than to recognise by act of parliament the existence of such an office."
By the turn of the 20th century the Premiership had become, by convention, the most important position in the constitutional hierarchy. Yet there were no legal documents describing its powers or acknowledging its existence. Incumbents had no statutory authority in their own right. As late as 1904, Arthur Balfour explained the status of his office in a speech at Haddington: "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."
In 1905 the position was given some official recognition when the "Prime Minister" was named in the order of precedence
, outranked, among non-royals, only by the Archbishops of Canterbury
, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
and the Lord Chancellor
The first Act of Parliament—albeit in a schedule—to mention the Premiership was the Chequers Estate Act
on 20 December 1917. This law conferred the Chequers
Estate owned by Sir Arthur
and Lady Lee, as a gift to the Crown for use as a country home for future Prime Ministers.
Unequivocal legal recognition was given in the Ministers of the Crown Act 1937
, which made provision for paying a salary to the person who is both "the First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister". Explicitly recognising two hundred years' of ambivalence, the act states that it intended "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 distinction between the "position" (Prime Minister) and the "office" (First Lord of the Treasury), emphasising the unique political character of the former. Nevertheless, the brass plate on the door of the Prime Minister's home, 10 Downing Street
, still bears the title of "First Lord of the Treasury", as it has since the 18th century.
Emergence of Cabinet government
Despite the reluctance to legally recognise the Premiership, ambivalence toward it waned in the 1780s. As noted previously, George III (1760–1820) is known to have attended only two Cabinet meetings. However, during the first twenty years of his reign, he tried to be his own "prime minister" by controlling policy from outside the Cabinet, appointing and dismissing ministers, meeting privately with individual ministers, and giving them instructions. These practices caused confusion and dissension in Cabinet meetings, especially during the dysfunctional ministries of the Earl of Chatham from 1766–1768 and of the Duke of Grafton from 1768-1770 when no one, not even the King, seemed to be in charge.
After the failure of Lord North's ministry (1770–1782) in March 1782 due to Britain's defeat in the American Revolutionary War
and the ensuing vote of no confidence by Parliament, the Marquess of Rockingham
reasserted the Prime Minister's control over the Cabinet. Rockingham assumed the Premiership "on the distinct understanding that measures were to be changed as well as men; and that the measures for which the new ministry required the royal consent were the measures which they, while in opposition, had advocated." He and his Cabinet were united in their policies and would stand or fall together; they also refused to accept anyone in the Cabinet who did not agree.This event also marks the beginnings of collective Cabinet responsibility. This principle states that the decisions made by any one Cabinet member become the responsibility of the entire Cabinet. King George threatened to abdicate but in the end reluctantly agreed out of necessity: he had to have a government.
From this time, there was a growing acceptance of the position of Prime Minister and the title was more commonly used, if only unofficially. Associated initially with the Whigs, even the Tories started to accept it. Lord North, for example, who had said the office was "unknown to the constitution", reversed himself in 1783 when he said, "In this country some one man or some body of men like a Cabinet should govern the whole and direct every measure." In 1803, William Pitt the Younger
, also a Tory, suggested to a friend 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.
Their conversion was reinforced after 1810. In that year, 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 unable to discharge his duties. The Prince Regent
was prevented from using the full powers of Kingship. The Regent became George IV
in 1820, but during his 10 year reign was indolent and frivolous. Consequently, for 20 years the 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 for almost 50 years, except for a short Whig ministry from 1806 to 1807. Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister for 15 years; he and Pitt held the position for 34 years. Under their long, consistent leadership, Cabinet government became a convention of the constitution. Although subtle issues remained to be settled, the Cabinet system of government is essentially the same today as it was in 1830.
Under this form of government, called the Westminster System
, the Sovereign is Head of State
and titular head of Her Majesty's Government. She selects as her Prime Minister the person who is able to command a working majority in the House of Commons, and invites him to form a government. As the actual Head of Government
, the Prime Minister selects his Cabinet, choosing its members from among those in Parliament who agree or generally agree with his intended policies. He then recommends them to the Sovereign who confirms his selections by formally appointing them to their respective offices. Led by the Prime Minister, the Cabinet is collectively responsible for everything the government does. The Sovereign does not confer with its members privately about policy or attend its meetings. With respect to actual governance, the monarch has only three constitutional rights: to be kept informed, to advise, and to warn. In practice this means that the Sovereign reviews state papers and meets regularly with the Prime Minister, usually weekly, when she may advise and warn him regarding the proposed decisions and actions of Her Government.
Loyal OppositionThe modern British system includes not only a government formed by the majority party (or coalition of parties) in the House of Commons but also an organised and open opposition formed by those who are not members of the governing party. Called the Loyal Opposition
(or "Her Majesty's Opposition"), they occupy the benches to the Speaker's left. Seated in the front, directly across from the ministers on the Treasury Bench, the leaders of the opposition form a "Shadow Government", complete with a salaried "Shadow Prime Minister", the Leader of the Opposition
, ready to assume office if the government falls or loses the next election.
", it acknowledges the legitimate existence of the two party system, and describes an important constitutional concept: opposing the government is not treason; reasonable men can honestly oppose its policies and still be loyal to the Sovereign and the nation.
Informally recognised for over a century as a convention of the constitution, the position of Leader of the Opposition was given statutory recognition in 1937 by the Ministers of the Crown Act
Great Reform Bill and the PremiershipBritish Prime Ministers have never been elected directly by the public. They have all become Prime Minister indirectly because firstly, they were members of either the Commons or Lords; secondly, they were the leader of a great political party; and, thirdly, they either inherited a majority in the Commons, or won more seats than the opposition in a general election.
, who resigned his peerage to stand in a by-election soon after becoming Prime Minister Like other members, they are elected initially to represent only a constituency. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair
, for example, represented Sedgefield
in County Durham from 1983 to 2007. He became Prime Minister because in 1994 he was elected Labour Party leader 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 Lords
had 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 and the selection of the Prime Minister 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 in the Commons were allocated disproportionately. The system was based on legislation passed in 1429 and virtually unchanged for 400 years. In 1832, only 440,000 met the voter qualifications in a population of 17 million. Although populations shifted, representation in the Commons remained the same. Consequently, some constituencies were over-represented; others under-represented. Through patronage, corruption and bribery, the Crown and Lords "owned" about 30% of the seats (called "pocket" or "rotten boroughs") giving them a significant influence in the Commons and in the selection of the Prime Minister.
In 1830, Charles Grey
, a life-long Whig, became Prime Minister determined to reform the electoral system. For two years, he and his Cabinet (including four future Prime Ministers – Melbourne
– and one former one, Goderich
) fought to pass what has come to be known as the Great Reform Bill of 1832
The greatness of the Great Reform Bill lay less in substance than symbolism. 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."
Substantively, it increased 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 it still excluded millions of working class men and all women.
Symbolically, the Bill exceeded 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.
First, the Great Reform Bill removed the Sovereign from the election process and the choice of Prime Minister. Slowly evolving for 100 years, this convention was confirmed two years after the passage of the bill. In 1834 King William IV dismissed Melbourne as Premier, but was forced to recall him when Robert Peel
, the King's choice, could not form a working majority. Since then, no Sovereign has tried to impose a Prime Minister on Parliament.
Second, the Bill reduced the Lords' power by eliminating many of their pocket boroughs and creating new ones where they had no influence. Weakened, they were unable to prevent the passage of more comprehensive electoral reforms in 1867, 1884, 1918 and 1928 when universal equal suffrage was achieved.
, 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 bearing changed the Premiership. Often called the first "modern Prime Minister", he set both an example and a precedent for his successors. He was primus inter pares, "first among equals", as Bagehot said in 1867 of the Prime Minister's status. Using his Whig victory as a mandate for reform, Grey was unrelenting in the pursuit of this goal, using every Parliamentary device to achieve it. Although respectful toward the King, he made it clear that his constitutional duty was to acquiesce to the will of the people and Parliament.
The Loyal Opposition acquiesced too. Some disgruntled Tories claimed they would repeal the Bill once they regained a majority. But in 1834, Robert Peel, the new Conservative leader, put an end to this threat when he stated in his Tamworth Manifesto
that 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". Thus, Peel affirmed a convention of the constitution that promotes stability in the British system: the Parliament of the day must respect the settlement of constitutional issues made by previous Parliaments.
Populist Prime Ministers
After the passage of the Great Reform Bill, the nature of the position 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 and 21.4 million in 1918. As the franchise increased, power shifted to the people and Prime Ministers assumed more responsibilities with respect to party leadership. It naturally fell on them to motivate and organise their followers, explain party policies, and deliver its "message". Successful 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.
Benjamin Disraeli and William Ewart Gladstone
developed this new role further by projecting "images" of themselves to the public. Known 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.
Gladstone went beyond image by appealing directly to the people. In 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 spoken directly to party loyalists before on special occasions – he was the first to canvass an entire constituency delivering his message to anyone who would listen, encouraging his supporters and trying to convert his opponents. Publicised nationwide, Gladstone's message became that of the party. Noting its significance, Lord Shaftesbury
said, "It is a new thing and a very serious thing to see the Prime Minister on the stump."
Campaigning directly to the people became commonplace. Several 20th century Prime Ministers, such as David Lloyd George
and Winston Churchill
, were famous for their oratorical skills. After the introduction of radio, motion pictures, television, and the internet, many used these technologies to project their public image and address the nation. Stanley Baldwin
, a master of the radio broadcast in the 1920s and 1930s, reached a national audience in his talks filled with homely advice and simple expressions of national pride. Churchill
also 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 Thatcher
and Tony Blair
, achieved celebrity status, like rock stars but have been criticised for their more 'presidential' style of leadership.. According to Anthony King
, ""The props in Blair's theatre of celebrity 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."
Parliament Act and the PremiershipIn addition to being the leader of a great political party and the head of Her Majesty's Government, the modern Prime Minister is the leader of the House of Commons. From this commanding position, the Prime Minister directs the law-making process, enacting into law his party’s programme. For example, Tony Blair, whose Labour party was elected in 1997 partly on a promise to enact a British Bill of Rights and to create devolved governments for Scotland and Wales, subsequently stewarded through Parliament the Human Rights Act (1998), the Scotland Act (1998) and the Government of Wales Act (1998).
From its appearance in the 14th century Parliament has been a bicameral legislature consisting of the Commons and the Lords. Members of the Commons are elected; those in the Lords are not. Most Lords are called "Temporal" with titles such as Duke, Marquess, Earl and Viscount. The balance are Lords Spiritual (prelates of the Anglican Church).
For most of the history of the Upper House, Lords Temporal were land owners who held their estates, titles and seats as an hereditary right passed down from one generation to the next in some cases for centuries. In 1910, for example, there were nineteen whose title was created before 1500.Following a series of reforms in the 20th century the Lords now consists almost entirely of appointed members who hold their title only for their own lifetime. As of July 2008 the Lords had 746 members, compared to 646 in the Commons.
Until 1911, Prime Ministers had to guide legislation through the Commons and the Lords and obtain a majority approval in both to translate it into law. This was not always easy because political differences usually separated the chambers. Representing the landed aristocracy, Lords Temporal were generally Tory (later Conservative) who wanted to maintain the status quo and resisted progressive measures such as extending the franchise. The party affiliation of members of the Commons was less predictable. During the 18th century its makeup varied because the Lords had considerable control over elections: sometimes Whigs dominated it, sometimes Tories. After the passage of the Great Reform Bill in 1832, the Commons gradually became more progressive, a tendency that increased with the passage of each subsequent expansion of the franchise.
, won an overwhelming victory on a platform that promised social reforms for the working class. With 379 seats compared to the Conservatives' 132, the Liberals could confidently expect to pass their legislative programme through the Commons. At the same time, however, the Conservative Party had a huge majority in the Lords; it could easily veto any legislation passed by the Commons that was against their interests.
For five years, the Commons and the Lords fought over one bill after another. The Liberals pushed through parts of their programme, but the Conservatives vetoed or modified others. When the Lords vetoed the "People's Budget" in 1909, the controversy moved almost inevitably toward a constitutional crisis.
then threatened to create a sufficient number of new Liberal Peers to ensure the bill's passage. Rather than accept a permanent Liberal majority, the Conservative Lords yielded, and the bill became law.
The Parliament Act 1911
established the supremacy of the Commons. It provided that the Lords could not delay for more than one month any bill certified by the Speaker of the Commons as a money bill. Furthermore, the act provided that any bill rejected by the Lords would nevertheless become law if passed by the Commons in three successive sessions provided that two years had elapsed since its original passage. The Lords could still delay or suspend the enactment of legislation but could no longer veto it. Subsequently the Lords “suspending” power was reduced to one year by the Parliament Act 1949
Indirectly, the Act enhanced the already dominant position of Prime Minister in the constitutional hierarchy. Although the Lords are still involved in the legislative process and the Prime Minister must still guide legislation through both Houses, the Lords no longer have the power to veto or even delay enactment of legislation passed by the Commons. Provided that he controls the Cabinet, maintains party discipline, and commands a majority in the Commons, the Prime Minister is assured of putting through his legislative agenda.
"Presidential" PremiershipThe 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
, Richard Crossman
identified a new era of "Prime Ministerial" government. Some commentators, such as the political scientist Michael Foley, have argued there is a de facto "British Presidency". In Tony Blair's government, many sources such as former ministers have suggested that decision-making was centred around him and Gordon Brown, and the Cabinet was no longer used for decision making. Former ministers such as Clare Short
and Chris Smith
have criticised the lack of decision-making power in Cabinet. When she resigned, Short denounced "the centralisation of power into the hands of the Prime Minister and an increasingly small number of advisers" The Butler Review
of 2004 condemned Blair's style of "sofa government".
, 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 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.
Generally, however, the Prime Minister is held responsible by the nation for the consequences of legislation or of general government policy – indeed, this heavy burden has pictured as ageing Prime Ministers at two or three times the normal rate. 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 Chamberlain resigned in 1940 after the Allies were forced to retreat from Norway, as he believed a government supported by all parties was essential, and the Labour and Liberal parties would not join a government headed by him.
The Prime Minister's powers are also limited by the House of Commons, whose support the Government is obliged to maintain. The 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".
Powers and constraintsWhen commissioned by the Sovereign, a potential Prime Minister's first requisite is to "form a Government" – create a cabinet of ministry that has the support of the House of Commons, of which they are expected to be a member. The Prime Minister then formally kisses the hands of his Sovereign, whose royal prerogative is thereafter exercised solely on the advice of the Prime Minister and Her Majesty's Government ("HMG"). The Prime Minister has weekly audiences with the Sovereign, whose functions are constitutionally limited "to advise, to be consulted, and to warn"; the extent of the Sovereign's ability to influence the nature of the Prime Ministerial advice is unknown, but presumably varies depending upon the personal relationship between the Sovereign and the Prime Minister of the day.
The Prime Minister will appoint all other cabinet members (who then become active Privy Counsellors) and ministers, although consulting senior ministers on their junior ministers, without any Parliamentary or other control or process over these powers. At any time, he may obtain the appointment, dismissal or nominal resignation of any other minister; he may resign, either purely personally or with his whole government. The Prime Minister generally co-ordinates the policies and activities of the Cabinet and Government departments, acting as the main public "face" of Her Majesty's Government.
Although the Commander-in-Chief
of the British Armed Forces
is legally the Sovereign, under constitutional practice the Prime Minister, with the Secretary of State for Defence whom he may appoint or dismiss, holds power over the deployment and disposition of British forces, and the declaration of war. The Prime Minister can authorise, but not directly order, the use of Britain's nuclear weapons
and the Prime Minister is hence a Commander-in-Chief in all but name.
The Prime Minister makes all the most senior Crown appointments, and most others are made by Ministers over whom he has the power of appointment and dismissal. Privy Counsellors
s and High Commissioner
s, senior civil servants, senior military officers, members of important committees and commissions, and other officials are selected, and in most cases may be removed, by 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 constitutionally still on the advice of the Prime Minister, is now made on the basis of recommendations from independent bodies.
Peerages, knighthoods, and other honours are bestowed by the Sovereign only on the advice of the Prime Minister. The only important British honours over which the Prime Minister does not have control are the Orders of the Garter
, and Merit
; the Royal Victorian Order
; and the Venerable Order of Saint John
, which are all within the "personal gift" of the Sovereign.
The Prime Minister appoints Ministers known as the "Whips", who use his patronage to negotiate for the support of MPs and to discipline dissenters of the government parliamentary party. Party discipline is strong since electors generally vote for parties rather than individuals. Members 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 MPs, it will usually make re-election difficult. Members of Parliament who hold ministerial office or political privileges can expect removal for failing to support the Prime Minister. Restraints imposed by the Commons grow weaker when the Government's party enjoys a large majority in that House, or in the electorate. In general, however, the Prime Minister and their colleagues may secure the Commons' support for almost any bill by internal party negotiations with little regard to opposition MPs.
However, even a government with a healthy majority can on occasion find itself unable to pass legislation. For example, on 31 January 2006, Tony Blair's Government was defeated over certain aspects of proposals to outlaw religious hatred, and, on 9 November 2005, 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 alters its proposals in order to avoid defeat in the Commons, as Tony Blair's Government did in February 2006 over education reforms.
Formerly, a Prime Minister whose government lost a Commons vote would be regarded as fatally weakened, and his whole government would resign, usually precipitating a general election. In modern practice, when the Government party has an absolute majority in the House, only the express vote "that this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government" is treated as having this effect; dissentients on a minor issue within the majority party are unlikely to force an election with the probable loss of their seats and salaries, and any future in the party.
Likewise, a Prime Minister is no longer just "first amongst equals" in HM Government; although theoretically his Cabinet might still outvote him, in practice he progressively entrenches his position by retaining only personal supporters in the Cabinet. In periodical reshuffles, the Prime Minister can sideline and simply drop from Cabinet the Members who have fallen out of favour: they remain Privy Counsellors, but the Prime Minister decides which of them are summoned to meetings. The Prime Minister is responsible for producing and enforcing the Ministerial Code.
Precedence, privileges and form of address
for 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 have become Prime Minister. This is usually done by saying words to the effect of:
Throughout the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister outranks all other dignitaries except members of the Royal Family, the Lord Chancellor
, and senior ecclesiastical figures.These include: 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
At present the Prime Minister receives £142,500 including a salary of £65,737 as a Member of Parliament. Until 2006, the Lord Chancellor
was the highest paid member of the government ahead of the Prime Minister. This reflected the Lord Chancellor's position as head of the judicial pay scale. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005
eliminated the Lord Chancellor's judicial functions and also reduced the office's salary below that of the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister is customarily a member of the Privy Council and thus entitled to the appellation "The Right Honourable
". Membership of the Council is retained for life. It is a constitutional convention that only a Privy Counsellor can be appointed Prime Minister. Most potential candidates have already attained this status. The only occasion when a non-Privy Counsellor was the natural appointment was Ramsay MacDonald in 1924. The issue was resolved by appointing him to the Council immediately prior to his appointment as Prime Minister.
According to the now defunct 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. Although this form of address is employed at formal occasions it is rarely used by the media. Since "Prime Minister" is a position, not a title, the incumbent should be referred to as "the Prime Minister". The title "Prime Minister" (e.g. "Prime Minister David Cameron") is technically incorrect but is sometimes used erroneously outside the United Kingdom, and has more recently become acceptable within it. Within the UK, the expression "Prime Minister Cameron" (or "Prime Minister Brown", etc.) is never used, although it, too, is sometimes used by foreign dignitaries and news sources.
in London and is also entitled to use the country house of Chequers
Upon retirement, it is customary for the Sovereign to grant a Prime Minister some honour or dignity. The honour commonly, but not invariably, bestowed 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 (or, in the case of Margaret Thatcher, Ladies) of the Garter has been fairly prevalent since the middle-19th century. On the retirement of a Prime Minister who is Scottish, it is likely that the primarily Scottish honour of the Order of the Thistle
will 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 a peerage
upon retirement from the Commons, which elevates the individual to the House of Lords
. 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 1984 Harold Macmillan
was created Earl of Stockton
. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher accepted life peerages. However, Edward Heath, John Major and Tony Blair did not accept peerages of any kind, although Mr. Major was later appointed a Knight of the Garter. , Gordon Brown remains a Member of Parliament, retaining his Commons seat in the 2010 general election and choosing to remain a backbencher.
Living former Prime MinistersThere are four living former British Prime Ministers:
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- Farnborough, Thomas Erskine, 1st Baron. (1896). Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third, 11th ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
- Number 10 official website
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- Parliament of the United Kingdom. (2004). Official Website.
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