Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

From New World Encyclopedia
Prime Minister of the
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (HM Government).png

Royal Arms of His Majesty's Government

Flag of the United Kingdom.svg
Government of the United Kingdom
Office of the Prime Minister
StyleThe Right Honourable
Member ofCabinet
Privy Council
British–Irish Council
National Security Council
Reports toParliament
Residence10 Downing Street
SeatWestminster, London, England, United Kingdom
AppointerMonarch of the United Kingdom
by convention, based on appointee's ability to command confidence in the House of Commons.
Term lengthAt His Majesty's pleasure,[1]
so long as General Elections are held no more than five years apart.[2]
Inaugural holderSir Robert Walpole
as First Lord of the Treasury and de facto first Prime Minister.
FormationApril 4, 1721

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is, in practice, the political leader of the United Kingdom. He or she acts as the head of His Majesty's Government and like other Prime Ministers in Westminster Systems is (along with his or her Cabinet) the de facto wielder of executive powers in the British Government, exercising many of the executive functions nominally vested in the Sovereign, often summed-up under the label of "royal prerogative." According to constitutional convention, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet (which he or she heads) are accountable for their actions to Parliament, of which (by convention) they are members.

The development of the office of Prime Minister coincides with the rise of democracy in the United Kingdom.


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 eighteenth 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 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).

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 either to resign (in which case the Sovereign can try to find another Prime Minister who has the House's confidence) or to request the monarch to call a general election. Since the premiership is in some small sense still a de facto position, the office's powers are mainly a matter of custom rather than law, deriving from the incumbent's ability to give the sovereign binding advice on the appointment of 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 the 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 nineteenth 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 itself.

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 recognize by act of parliament the existence of such an office."

Beatson's Political Index of 1786 gives the list of Prime Ministers and Favorites 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.[3]

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 person who is "Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury"[4] – the latter being the office that since the eighteenth 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), emphasizing the unique character of the position and recognizing 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 recognized as the leaders of their respective ministries, but they cannot be considered Prime Ministers in the modern sense, since 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.

Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, studio of Jean-Baptiste van Loo, 1740. Sir Robert Walpole is normally considered to be Great Britain's first Prime Minister.

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 favor 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 favor. 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. The last Prime Minister to be a member of the Lords during 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 Douglas-Home to contest the by-election, win and thus procure a seat in the lower House.

The Office

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 the House in which they sat. 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 organization 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. Since the resignation of John Prescott on June 27, 2007 there has been no Deputy Prime Minister.

In the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the position which corresponds with that of Prime Minister is First Minister.


Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to serve as British Prime Minister, holding the office from 1979 to 1990. Photographed 18 September, 1975.

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 His Majesty's pleasure." In reality the convention "at His Majesty's pleasure" means "at the pleasure of the House of Commons." Whenever the office of Prime Minister falls vacant, the Sovereign is responsible for appointing the new successor; the appointment is formalized at a ceremony known as Kissing Hands. In accordance with unwritten constitutional conventions, the Sovereign must appoint the individual most likely to maintain the support of the House of Commons – usually, the leader of the party which has a majority in that House. If no party has a majority (an unlikely occurrence, given the United Kingdom's First Past the Post electoral system), two or more groups may form a coalition, whose agreed leader is then appointed Prime Minister. The majority party becomes "His Majesty's Government," and the next largest party becomes "His Majesty's Loyal Opposition." The head of the largest opposition party becomes the Leader of the Opposition and holds the title Leader of His 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:

"His Majesty the King [Her Majesty the Queen] has asked me to form an administration and I have accepted."

Although it wasn't required, Tony Blair also said these words after he was re-elected in 2001 and 2005.

The period in office of a Prime Minister is not linked to the term of Members of the House of Commons. A prime minister once appointed continues in office as His 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 either resign or seek a dissolution. 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).

When a prime minister loses a general election, modern constitutional conventions dictate that that prime minister immediately submit his or her resignation. Previous precedent, until the early twentieth century, dictated that a prime minister wait until actually defeated on their legislative program 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.

Eighteenth century illustration of the assassination of Spencer Perceval by John Bellingham in 1812.

Contrary to myth a prime minister is not reappointed after every general election. They continue in office, but may use the opportunity to reshuffle the cabinet, with only those ministers moved or brought in going to the Palace for appointment. As a result, though prime minister during a number of parliaments in succession, Margaret Thatcher was only actually appointed prime minister once, in 1979.

Whatever the reason—the expiry of Parliament's five-year term, the choice of the Prime Minister, or a Government defeat in the House of Commons—the dissolution is followed by general elections. If his or her party has lost a majority in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is compelled to resign (or request a dissolution, but the Sovereign is not compelled to accept such a request). The leader of the party or coalition now in the majority is then appointed Prime Minister by the Sovereign. The custom that requires the Prime Minister to resign immediately after an electoral loss is only of relatively recent invention. Previously, Prime Ministers had the option of meeting Parliament, and then inviting an effective vote of confidence.

As well as losing the confidence of the House of Commons, prime ministers may also in effect be forced to resign if they lose the confidence of their party. This was what led Margaret Thatcher to resign in 1990. The last Prime Minister to die in office was Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (in 1865). The only Prime Minister to be assassinated was Spencer Perceval (in 1812).

Powers and 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 coordinates the policies and activities of the Cabinet and the various Government departments, acting as the "face" of His Majesty's Government. The Sovereign exercises much of his or her royal prerogative on the Prime Minister's advice.

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 authorize, 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 honors are bestowed by the Sovereign only on the advice of the Prime Minister. He also formally advises the Sovereign on the appointment of Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England, but his discretion is limited by the existence of the Crown Nominations Commission. The appointment of senior judges, while on the advice of the Prime Minister for constitutional reasons, is now on the basis of recommendations from independent bodies. The only important British honors 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.

David Lloyd George, who served from 1916 to 1922, is often cited as an example of a strong Prime Minister. Photograph published ca. 1919.

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 organize 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 generally 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.

Even a government with a healthy majority can on occasion find it is unable to pass legislation due to opposition from MPs. For example, on January 31, 2006 Tony Blair's Government was defeated over proposals to outlaw religious hatred, while on November 9, 2005 it was defeated over plans which would have allowed police to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge. On other occasions, the Government may be forced to alter its proposals in order to avoid defeat in the Commons, as Tony Blair's Government did in February 2006 over education reforms.[5]

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' 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 recent decades. 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, sources such as former ministers suggested that decision-making was centered around him and Gordon Brown, and the Cabinet was no longer used for decision making.[6] On her resignation, Short denounced "the centralization of power into the hands of the Prime Minister and an increasingly small number of advisers"[7]

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 criticized for his handling of negotiations with Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II, and for failing to prevent the fall of Norway to the Nazi onslaught.

Precedence and Privileges

Tony Blair and Dick Cheney at the main door to 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's residence in London, on March 11, 2002.

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).

Did you know?
The Prime Minister of the UK traditionally resides at 10 Downing Street in London

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 homes 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 while 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 is also entitled to use the country house of Chequers in Buckinghamshire.

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 Councilor can be appointed Prime Minister, but invariably all potential candidates have already attained this status. The only occasion when a non-Privy Councilor 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.

Retirement Honors

It is customary for the Sovereign to grant a Prime Minister some honor or dignity when that individual retires from politics. The honor commonly, but not invariably, bestowed on Prime Ministers is membership of the United Kingdom's most senior order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter. The practice of creating retired Prime Ministers Knights of the Garter has been fairly prevalent since the middle-nineteenth century. On the retirement of a Prime Minister who is Scottish, it is likely that the primarily Scottish honor of the Order of the Thistle will be used instead of the Order of the Garter, which is generally regarded as an English honor.

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 on retirement. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, and Margaret Thatcher accepted life peerages. However, neither Edward Heath nor John Major accepted peerages of any kind on stepping down as MPs. Margaret Thatcher's son Mark is a baronet, which he inherited from his father Denis, but this is not a peerage.

Form of Address

According to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Prime Minister is made a Privy Councilor 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 on formal occasions, it is rarely used by the media. As "Prime Minister" is a position, not a title, the incumbent should be referred to as "the Prime Minister."


  1. Ivor Jennings, Cabinet Government (Cambridge University Press, 1969, ISBN 0521095700).
  2. Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 The National Archives, September 15, 2011. Retrieved November 2, 2022.
  3. Robert Beatson, A Political Index To The Histories Of Great Britain & Ireland (Palala Press, 2018, ISBN 978-1378432358).
  4. The Ministers of the Crown Act, 1937 Modern Law Review (September 1937). Retrieved November 2, 2022.
  5. Hélène Mulholland, Blair defends school reform plans before senior MPs. The Guardian, February 7, 2006. Retrieved November 2, 2022.
  6. Christopher Foster, "Blair's Cabinet: Monarchy Returns," British Government in Crisis (Oxford, UK: Hart Publishing, 2005).
  7. Short launches broadside on Blair, BBC News, May 12, 2003. Retrieved November 2, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beatson, Robert. A Political Index To The Histories Of Great Britain & Ireland. Palala Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1378432358
  • Farnborough, Thomas Erskine, 1st Baron. Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third. Wentworth Press, 2016. ISBN 978-1360833644
  • Foster, Christopher D. British Government in Crisis. Oxford, UK: Hart Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1841135496
  • Jennings, Ivor. Cabinet Government. Cambridge University Press, 1969. ISBN 0521095700
  • Rentoul, John. Tony Blair: Prime Minister. London: Warner, 2001. ISBN 978-0751530827
  • Trollope, Anthony. The Prime Minister. London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. ISBN 978-0192811479

External links

All links retrieved November 30, 2022.


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