Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
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The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is the head of the British government. This role is usually performed by the leader of the largest political party in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister appoints ministers to head government departments, selects the ministerial Cabinet (the government's top policy-making body), and exercises the executive power of the royal prerogative. In practice, the Prime Minister must be an elected Member of Parliament, except of course for brief intervals when there is no House of Commons; very rarely, someone not an MP might be appointed, but they would be expected to stand for election to the Commons, as Lord Home did in 1963, for example. The powers and duties of the Prime Minister have been established by long-established convention, rather than by legislation.
Liz Truss took on the role on 6th September 2022 but resigned in late October after just seven weeks in office. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was appointed as Prime Minister on 25th October 2022, having been the only candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party.
Historically, the monarch's chief minister (if, as was not always the case, any one person could be singled out as such) might have held any of a number of offices: Lord Chancellor, Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord High Steward, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Privy Seal, or Secretary of State among others. With the emergence, in the 18th century, of government by a cabinet of these ministers, its head came in time to be called the "Prime Minister", often abbreviated to PM (sometimes also "Premier" or "First Minister"). To this day the Prime Minister always also holds one or more of the more specific ministerial positions (since 1905 it has always been that of First Lord of the Treasury). Sir Robert Walpole is generally regarded as the first Prime Minister in the modern sense; although adoption of the phrase "Prime Minister" in any formal or official sense did not come until many years later (indeed, at Walpole's time it would have been seen as an insult). (Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman is often considered the first to officially bear the label; see "The office" below.)
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 majority in that body). Should the Prime Minister lose the confidence of the House of Commons (indicated, for example, by the passage of a no confidence motion), he or she is morally obliged by similar conventions to resign, or else appeal to a new House of Commons by requesting the dissolution of Parliament; in the former case the Sovereign must then try to find another Prime Minister who has the House's confidence. 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 incumbent's ability to give the sovereign binding advice on the appointment of his or her Cabinet colleagues, as well as from certain uses of the royal prerogative which 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.
The bulk of the power over parliament of the United Kingdom has historically been vested in the Sovereign, acting on the advice of bodies such as Parliament and the Privy Council. Over several years, the Cabinet evolved from the Privy Council, as the monarch began the practice of consulting a few confidential advisers rather than the Council at large. These bodies, however, bore little resemblance to modern Cabinets; they were often not led by a single figure such as a Prime Minister, they often failed to act in unison, and they were appointed and dismissed entirely at the whim of the monarch, with little parliamentary control.
The history of the British Prime Ministers owes much more to speculation of historians, rather than to legal acts. The origin of the term prime minister and the question to whom the designation should first be applied have long been issues of scholarly and political debate.
The first mention of "Prime Minister" in an official government document occurred during the premiership of Benjamin Disraeli. The title was 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 precedence in 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 Chequers Estate Act 1917, and the Ministers of the Crown Act 1937.
There are numerous categorical testimonies deep into the 19th century decrying the notion of a First or Prime Minister, credibly declaring the concept as alien to the Constitution, and the term actually emerges as a creature of historians, not lawyers or Parliament — indeed the contrary is best documented.
In 1741, it was declared in the Commons 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." These were very much partisan assessments of the day, however.
On the other hand, in an interview by Lord Melville with William Pitt the Younger in 1803, the latter 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. In 1806, it was asserted in the Commons that "the Constitution abhors the idea of a prime minister", and as late as 1829 the Commons again asserted that "nothing could be more mischievous or unconstitutional than to recognise by act of parliament the existence of such an office."
Beatson's Political Index of 1786 gives the list of Prime Ministers and Favourites from the Accession of Henry VIII to the Present Time. Since 1714, Beatson could only find one Sole Minister, and that was Sir Robert Walpole. At all subsequent periods he felt that he had to bracket two, three, or even four people as joint or co-equal ministers whose advice the King took, and who therefore controlled the governance of the country.
The first Act of Parliament to mention the position of Prime Minister was the Chequers Estate Act, which received the Royal Assent on 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."
The lack of official recognition for the position of Prime Minister sometimes causes problems when trying to positively identify prime ministers in the British history. Thus, every list of British Prime Ministers may omit certain politicians, depending on the criteria selected by a researcher. For instance, unsuccessful attempts to form ministries, such as that of William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath in 1746, or the summons of the sovereign to ministers who refused to form a ministry are often ignored.
The origins of the modern term "Prime Minister" date back to the time after the Glorious Revolution (1688), when Parliament's power began to grow steadily at the expense of that of the monarch. It was under William III and his successor, Anne, that the Cabinet began to take its modern shape. Individuals such as Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin and Robert Harley were recognised as the leaders of their respective ministries, but they cannot be considered Prime Ministers in the modern sense, given that they exercised little control over their colleagues. Similarly, the Cabinets of Anne's successor, George I, were led by individuals such as Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, James Stanhope, 1st Earl Stanhope, and Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, but these individuals were not truly Prime Ministers, as we now understand the office.
Lord Stanhope and Lord Sunderland, who were joint leaders of their Cabinet, were succeeded in 1721 by Sir Robert Walpole, who held the influential office of First Lord of the Treasury. Previous holders of the post had often been important figures in government, but not to such a degree as Walpole. His influence grew even stronger because the King, George I, was not active in British politics, preferring to concentrate on his native Hanover. Walpole is generally regarded as the first Prime Minister, not just because of his influence in Government, but because he could persuade (or force) his colleagues in the Cabinet to act in a harmonious and unified fashion, instead of intriguing against each other for more power. Walpole's office, First Lord of the Treasury, became strongly associated with the leadership of the Government; it became the position which the Prime Minister almost always held.
Though Walpole is considered the first "Prime Minister," these words were used as a term of reproach by his political opponents. His tenure was not as important in terms of constitutional development as some have imagined. His term and power were primarily based on the favour of the Crown, rather than the support of the House of Commons. His immediate successors were not nearly as powerful as he; the influence of the Crown continued to remain paramount. Still, the powers of the monarch were slowly diminished, and those of the Prime Minister gradually increased, over the course of the following years. Indeed, during the last years of George II's life, policy was chiefly directed by Ministers such as William Pitt the Elder.
The reign of George III, which began in 1760 upon the death of George II, is particularly notable for developments in the office of Prime Minister. Over the course of his reign, the King was sometimes forced by parliamentary pressure to appoint Prime Ministers and Ministers whom he did not personally favour. Control over the composition of the Cabinet had not, however, been completely lost by the King; in some cases, George was able to prevent the appointment of politicians whom he detested (for instance, Charles James Fox). The influence of the monarch nevertheless continued to gradually wane; this trend became clearly noticeable during the reign of William IV, the last King to appoint a Prime Minister against the wishes of Parliament. William attempted to impose his personal will in 1834, when he dismissed William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (whose Whig administration he disliked) and replaced him with a Conservative, Sir Robert Peel. Peel, however, found it impossible to govern without the support of the House of Commons, which remained Whig-dominated despite a general election, and was forced to resign from his position. Since Peel's administration, the Sovereign has had very little discretion in appointing Prime Ministers.
As the Royal influence over ministerial appointments disappeared, the power of the House of Commons rose, its political superiority over the House of Lords being established by the Parliament Act 1911. During the early twentieth century, the convention that the Prime Minister should be responsible not to the Lords, but to the Commons, took root. The associated convention that the Prime Minister should actually be a member of the Lower House was developed. The last Prime Minister to lead his whole administration from the Lords was Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, from 1895 to 1902. Mention, however, must be made of the appointment of Alec Douglas-Home, 14th Earl of Home in 1963. Lord Home was the last Prime Minister who was a 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 Douglas-Home to contest the by-election, win and thus procure a seat in the lower House.
For the complete list of British Prime Ministers, see /Catalogs.
Although in recent years it has never hindered any premier in the exercise of his or her office, the official status of the Prime Minister remains somewhat ambiguous. A Prime Minister has virtually no statutory authority in his or her 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 his or her 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 and by the Lord Chancellor. 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 Disraeli and was used informally before then. 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 Street in the name of the "Prime Minister" without further circumlocution or explanation.
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 Commons or Leader of the House of Lords, depending upon which House they sat in. Some have also held specific ministerial posts; for example Ramsay MacDonald was both First Lord and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs during his first premiership in 1924. Since the 1960s every prime minister has also been Minister for the Civil Service.
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 his or her party. The Deputy Prime Minister does not automatically succeed if a vacancy in the premiership is suddenly created, nor does he or she generally assume any specific additional powers when the Prime Minister is outside the country. It may, however, be necessary for the Deputy to stand in for the Prime Minister on occasion, for example by taking the dispatch box at Prime Minister's Question Time or by attending international conferences or bilateral meetings when the Prime Minister is unavailable. From the resignation of John Prescott on 27 June 2007 there was no Deputy Prime Minister until the formation of a coalition government in 2011, in which Nick Clegg held the title until 2015.
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.)
The office of Prime Minister is governed not by codified laws, but by unwritten and, to some extent, fluid customs known as constitutional conventions, which have developed over years of British history. These conventions are for the most part founded on the underlying principle that the Prime Minister and his fellow Ministers must not lose the support of the democratically elected component of Parliament: the House of Commons. The Sovereign, as a constitutional monarch, always acts in accordance with such conventions, as do Prime Ministers themselves.
There is no term of office for a prime minister. The prime minister holds office "at Her Majesty's pleasure". As however to gain supply (control of exchequer funds) that requires that the government be answerable to, and acceptable to, the House of Commons, 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 incumbent; 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 infrequent 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; alternatively, one or more parties might agree to support a government without being part of it; failing this, the largest party will be allowed to form a minority government. 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 Street for the first time as its occupant, he or she is required to announce to the country and the world that he or she has kissed hands with the monarch of the day, 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 an administration and I have accepted."
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 as Her Majesty's head of government 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 Confidence or by rejecting a Motion of Confidence in the House of Commons. In those situations, a prime minister must resign. A Loss of Supply also amounts to a loss of confidence. Such defeats for the Government, however, are rare; there have only been three defeats on confidence issues since the nineteenth 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). The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 abolished this procedure, but that has now been repealed, restoring the previous system.
Where a prime minister loses a general election modern constitution conventions dictate that that prime minister immediately submit his or her resignation. Previous precedent, until the late nineteenth century, dictated that a prime minister wait until actually defeated on their legislative programme in a vote on the Speech from the Throne before 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 Heath opted 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.
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. However, as the Prime Minister is technically a personal adviser to the Sovereign, formal reappointment is necessary on the demise of the Crown.
Whatever the reason - the expiry of Parliament's five-year term, or dissolution by Royal Proclamation - the dissolution is followed by general elections. If another party has a majority in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is compelled to resign. 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 restraints
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. He or she generally co-ordinates 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 his or her royal prerogative on the Prime Minister's advice. The prerogative of dissolving Parliament has now been abolished by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.
The Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces is the Sovereign. Under longstanding parliamentary custom and practice, however, the Prime Minister holds de facto decision-making power over the deployment and disposition of British forces. 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 (normally) 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.
There exist several limits on the powers of the Prime Minister. Firstly, he or she is (theoretically at least) only a first among equals in the Cabinet. The extent of a Prime Minister's power over the Cabinet may vary. In some cases, the Prime Minister may be a mere figurehead, with actual power being wielded by one or more other individuals. Weak or titular Prime Ministers were more common prior to the twentieth century; examples include William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire and William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland. 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 (who was powerful enough as to be able to organise her Cabinet without regard to Parliamentary conventions), 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.
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."
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 his or her party for failing to support the Government on important issues, and although this will not mean he or she 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 his or her 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 incitement to 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.
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 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 is centered around him and Gordon Brown, and the Cabinet is no longer used for decision making. Former ministers such as Clare Short and Chris Smith have criticised the total lack of decision-making in Cabinet. On her resignation, 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".
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 Chamberlain resigned after being criticised for his handling of World War II.
Proposed changes by Gordon Brown to change the powers of the office
Gordon Brown on 2 July 2007 proposed transferring parts of the Prime Minister's traditional authority to Parliament. He said he intended to yield certain traditional Prime Ministerial powers conferred on the office by royal prerogative, including the ability to declare war, thus giving the Parliament more powers and rights to vet and veto appointments to senior public positions, in a bid to crack down on cronyism. One of these proposals, abolishing the royal prerogative of dissolving Parliament, has now been enacted by the succeeding government, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.
Precedence and privileges
The Prime Minister had no special precedence until the order of precedence first recognized the office in 1905. Throughout the United Kingdom, he 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 his or her salary not as Prime Minister, but as First Lord of the Treasury. At present, he or she receives £127,334, in addition to his or her salary of £60,277 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 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 2005 stripped 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 Street in 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 his or her 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 London houses of their own, such as Palmerston's Cambridge House and seems unlikely to occur again. Furthermore, some such as Harold Macmillan and John Major have 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. However, the Prime Ministerial offices are still maintained in Number 10. 12 Downing Street is the residence of the Chief Whip.
The Prime Minister, like other Cabinet Ministers and senior Members of Parliament, is customarily a member of the Privy Council; thus, he or she becomes entitled to prefix "The Right Honourable" to his or her 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 as Knights of the Garter (KG) has been fairly prevalent since the mid-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 Thistle (KT) would be used instead of the Order of the Garter, which is generally regarded as an English honour. Sir Alec Douglas-Home was awarded the KT.
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 he or she steps down as an MP at the same time. Formerly, the peerage bestowed was usually an earldom (which was always hereditary). However, since the 1960s, hereditary peerages have generally been eschewed, and life peerages have been preferred although, in the 1980s, Harold Macmillan was created Earl of Stockton long after his retirement.
By agreement between George VI and Attlee in 1946, peerages are granted on the "advice" of the Prime Minister, but KG and KT are in the personal gift of the Sovereign, who is expected to maintain political neutrality.
Of the 24 former Prime Ministers from 1902 to 2022, five became both Earls and KGs: Arthur Balfour, H. H. Asquith, Stanley Baldwin, Clement Attlee, and Anthony Eden. Four became life peers in addition to knighthoods: Douglas-Home (KT), Harold Wilson (KG), James Callaghan (KG) and Margaret Thatcher (LG). David Lloyd George and Macmillan became Earls but not KGs. Winston Churchill, Edward Heath, John Major and Tony Blair became KGs (Churchill was knighted during his time in office, not after) but not Earls or life peers (Churchill was offered a Dukedom but declined it).
Nine former Prime Ministers have not received honours. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who was knighted several years before he became Prime Minister, died only a short time after he stepped down and did not become either an Earl or a KG. The same happened to Andrew Bonar Law and Neville Chamberlain who both died a few months after stepping down. James Ramsay MacDonald declined the offer of honours after he retired. The other five are, like Major and Blair, still alive but none of them have received honours. Two of them, Theresa May and Liz Truss, are still MPs while two more, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, have retired from Parliament. The fifth is Johnson who was obliged to resign in disgrace.
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 results showed that Attlee was rated as most successful, followed by Churchill and Lloyd George. Eden was rated as the least successful.
In August 2006, BBC History Magazine historian, Francis Beckett ranked each 20th century Prime Minister on how well they implemented their policies. Attlee and Thatcher topped this poll, with Eden and Chamberlain coming bottom. Beckett said Thatcher "took one sort of society, and turned it into another".
Form of address
According to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Prime Minister is made a Privy Counsellor, if not already one (in fact, the last PM who was not already a PC was MacDonald in 1924), 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 "the Prime Minister", "Mr Blair", "Tony Blair" or "Blair". Colleagues sometimes referred to him simply as "Tony". He was usually addressed as "Prime Minister".
- Under section 18 of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, a Catholic is forbidden to advise the crown on ecclesiastical appointments, so a Catholic Prime Minister would have to delegate this part of the job to another minister. A similar provision is included in the Jews Relief Act 1858. However, the Oaths Act 1888, which abolished all remaining religious tests for sitting in Parliament, placed no such restriction on other religions and atheists. All previous Prime Ministers have been Protestants, but the current holder is a Hindu. Thus there seems to be no legal obstacle to his advising the King in such matters; it has not yet been made clear whather he intends to do so.
- Blair defends school reform climbdown., Times Online, February 7, 2006.
- Chapter 12 Blair's Cabinet: Monarchy Returns, British Government in Crisis, Christopher Foster, Hart Publishing, 2005
- Short launches broadside on Blair, BBC News, 12 May, 2003. Accessed April 23, 2006.
- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/07/02/nbrown102.xml Telegraph, July 2, 2007
- http://politics.guardian.co.uk/commons/story/0,,2117348,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=networkfront Laura Smith, "Brown sets out plans to cede powers to parliament," Guardian, July 3, 2007
- (September 11 2006) "Tony has issued an omerta". The Times: 1–2.
- 10 Downing Street. (2004). Official Website.
- Farnborough, Thomas Erskine, 1st Baron. (1896). Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third, 11th ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
- The British Constitution A general introduction to the constitutional function of the UK Prime Minister
- Parliament of the United Kingdom. (2004). Official Website.
- Principal Ministers of the Crown: 1730–2006