The prospect of the Liberal Democrats in a hung Parliament supporting a Labour Party led by someone other than Gordon Brown has led to media speculation that there may be a temporary Prime Minister while the Labour Party elects a new leader. The Labour Party rule book has been dusted down and found to include a provision that if a Labour PM becomes ‘permanently unavailable’, the Cabinet can select a temporary leader while a new leader is chosen. The media have therefore variously referred to Labour as choosing a temporary PM. This confuses the fact that the Cabinet does not appoint a Prime Minister. The Queen does. Her freedom of action is, in practice, severely circumscribed. However, there is no precedent for appointing a temporary Prime Minister. That is not an argument against having one, but merely noting that it would set a precedent. There is also the issue of why does one need a temporary PM if the present one is capable of remaining in office for three or four weeks while the Labour Party elects a new leader. If Brown is ‘permanently unavailable’ and a new PM is to be appointed, Brown has to resign. What if he refuses to do so? It is possible to have a PM who is not party leader, but in this situation his position would be politically untenable.
These are issues which are best anticipated rather than waiting for the problem to arise. Some academics have touched upon the problems created if a PM dies in office. They raise more or less the same issue, though in more severe form – there is no prospect of the PM remaining until a new leader is elected. Some academics have recognised the problem, but it has not been pursued with general agreement being reached as to what should be done. Palmerston was the last PM to die in office – in other words, in the days when party leaders were not elected by party members, a process taking several weeks – though in more recent times two Opposition leaders (both Labour – Gaitskell and Smith) have died in office. Margaret Beckett was temporary leader while Smith’ s successor was elected.
Even if it does not become a real issue after 6 May – for example if the Conservatives win an overall majority – we may need to think through the constitutional implications of a PM’s death or incapacity to serve and whether there should be provision for a temporary Prime Minister.