A temporary Prime Minister?

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.


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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25 Responses to A temporary Prime Minister?

  1. Jonathan says:

    On a similar subject, what would happen if the PM lost his seat in an election? (Not that it’s likely to happen.) And how about if a candidate for the PM’s constituency died, causing the poll to be delayed until a few weeks after the election? That really would require a temporary PM, until he was re-elected. There must be a greater risk of this happening to the PM than other MPs due to the large number of candidates who tend to stand in the constituency.

  2. Croft says:

    I’m not really convinced that the country would collapse if there wasn’t a PM for a few weeks. After all the civil service and the various departments and their ministers have all the powers they need to run the country – the PM for practical purposes (ignoring minister of the civil service) isn’t hands on in any direct sense. If some great crisis arose a PM could be appointed but otherwise I see no reason not to just wait for a new leader.

    However this all rather bi-passes the bigger issue – appointing yet another ‘unelected’ PM. Rather a hard argument for the ‘new’ politics the LDs keep talking about if their first act is to hold the country to ransom unless they get the leader of another party removed and one presumably tolerable to them appointed before they will agree to let them become PM. This will make tactical voting a touch more complex. So now we’re saying if you want brown out but a Labour(miliband) dominated coalition you need to vote LD 🙄

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: I agree. This was one of the implications of considering whether a temporary PM would be necessary. The government has been carried on at times when the PM has been temporarily incapacitated (e.g. Churchill) without the need for a temporary PM, and indeed during election campaigns it used to be the case (as I understand it) that the government was managed by the Lord Chancellor (peer, legal figure, above the political fray) while the PM and other ministers were out campaigning.

      I take your point about an ‘unelected’ PM, though that is a political issue – certainly a very salient one – rather than a constitutional one. Constitutionally, the key point is whether the PM can command a majority in the House.

      • Croft says:

        Interesting I’d not heard about the LC taking ‘control’ before. When roughly did this custom hold sway? I seem to remember when Major resigned as party leader there was some discussion as to if he could be PM or a temporary PM were needed which I really didn’t follow as it seems to misunderstand the constitutional settlement you previously mentioned.

        I remember, perhaps wrongly, that Churchill said or allowed it to be known that when Atlee was made deputy PM that this was a title alone and that the idea of a deputy automatically or having the right to take over was an unconstitutional infringement on the sovereign’s power.

  3. Lord Norton says:

    Jonathan: If a candidate in the PM’s constituency died, there would be a delayed poll (as presently in Thirsk and Malton) but the PM could carry on as PM (assuming the PM’s party had won the election). Likewise if the PM was defeated, but his party won the election, he could carry on as PM until he was returned in (hastily engineered) by-election, though there may be political pressure on him to go as a result of the political embarrassment of losing his seat.

    It is a convention but not a legal requirement that the PM sits in the Commons. The Queen could send for a peer or someone who is not in Parliament at all: indeed, in 1963 she sent for the Earl of Home who, having renounced his title, was then not in Parliament until elected in the Kinross and West Perthshire by-election.

  4. Alex Bennee says:

    Is there no documented order of succession? For example when the PM goes on holiday there is a notional person in charge who attends PMQs (although usually shadowed by someone other than the Leader of Opposition).

    I’ve been watching a lot of the West Wing recently and the Americans certainly seems to be a lot more organised. The characters sometimes don’t know what happens but they always seem to be able to refer to the constitution to figure out what happens next 🙂

    • Lord Norton says:

      Alex Bennee: There is no formal order of succession. The PM decides who runs things in his absence and who answers in PMQs if he is not available. Even the post of Deputy Prime Minister, when utilised, carries no rights of succession. The post is the same as any other Cabinet post and the Cabinet pecking order is determined by the PM.

      It is certainly different in the USA, where there is a prescribed order of succession – which is also worrying at times when you look at who holds the posts!

      • Alex Bennee says:

        “which is also worrying at times when you look at who holds the posts!”

        I suspect that’s why the choice of Vice-President attracts a degree of scrutiny. I guess it’s unlikely they loose the President and Vice-President at the same time and have to turn to the legislature.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Alex Bennee: Indeed, the Constitution has been amended to cover the position in respect of both the President and the Vice-President. These provisions were utilised following the resignation in 1973 of the Vice-President (Spiro Agnew) and the resignation the following year of the President (Richard Nixon), resulting in a President (Ford) and Vice-President (Rockefeller), neither of whom had been elected to the position. As you say, it is unlikely that both President and VP will die at the same time, so highly unlikely that the Speaker of the House of Representatives will assume the highest office.

      • Croft says:

        My memory was for all the supposed succession rules after Reagan’s shooting things still became pretty confused at the very top.

    • franksummers3ba says:

      Replying to Croft’s noteat 9:42:

      Confusion is what we all hoped happened. Despite later being President Poppy Bush was a quiet and almost shy fighter-pilot, spymaster and bureaucrat. Someone else announced that he was in charge of the White House and nobody needed to worry. That was not great. However, old note-writing prep school Brahmin “Poppy” (his real nickname) did get around to clarifying who was in charge fairly soon.

  5. ladytizzy says:

    The succession of Olmert, after Arial Sharon’s stroke, appeared rather complicated, more so due to the coalition gvt and that Sharon’s party was new.

    Do you anticipate a new party being forged, à la SDP, after this election?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: Indeed, that can be a consequence of coalitions. On your query, I doubt it, unless the Labour Party splits assunder.

      • ladytizzy says:

        “…the Labour Party splits assunder.”

        I wonder how Barry Cryer would define assunder for the Uxbridge English Dictionary.

  6. franksummers3ba says:

    Regular readers know that many trends in my own country make me blissfully happy. Not least of which is the lovely trend of solving all problems with term limits. Here again you lot can come out of the dark ages and pass us up. I have suggested that there should be elections for Congress here where a slate is elected each serving for a day or less ( so they don’t get too corrupt). Your PM is similar, thank goodness for this chance. Let the Queen invite a new PM to form a government on most Tuesdays at tea. This would be from a slate of the coallition parties or the majority party MPs. To restore royal perogative she could thrown an odd peer in every eighth Tuesday. What a chance for a humble and eager PM.

    Surely Lord Norton has it all wrong. Weekly PMs would be great until one reaches the custom of having p.m. stand for a different Prime Minister each day at noon as it should. It will be damned hard to go about bloating expenses if one is not clear where any of the papers for requisitioning monies are kept. Progress!

  7. FinnishCowl says:

    I agree with others that the country would be fine for some time without a PM. If there were a serious emergency situation, it should be covered by the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (although, I am surprised it does not mention replacing the PM specifically; however, I am sure there is some classified government document discussing how to deal with certain situations in detail). The US originally developed a detailed succession plan to avoid the political violence and civil strife which could occur in a vacuum of power (unlikely in the UK). This succession was made more detailed after the possibility of a rapid and catastrophic loss of government officials in war became more of a reality. Again, I think the Civil Contingencies Act takes care of this problem. So, I do not see any reason for a temporary PM. In fact, I might suggest it would be a good test for the ruling party to see if they can get their act together and carry on with the government of the nation.

    Also, what exactly is “permanently unavailable?” It makes me think the PM is in a coma, insane, dead, kidnapped, fled to the West Indies, etc.

    On another note, is there any precedence for the leader of one of the smaller parties of a majority coalition to become PM? There has been some speculation of this in the press, but I wanted to know if this had any precedence. I have the feeling that it is always the leader of the largest party in the coalition who becomes PM.

  8. Lord Norton says:

    FinnishCowl: I was going to raise the issue of definition. We have had occasions, essentially covered up at the time, when the PM has been temporarily unavailable. Does ‘permanently unavailable’ mean the PM has resigned? The Cabinet cannot formally remove him from office: only the monarch can do that.

    There are precedents for the PM to be drawn from a party other than the party holding a majority in the House. Lloyd George as PM was a Liberal at the head of a Conservative-dominated coalition (1916-22) and Ramsay MacDonald was a National Labour PM at the head of a Conservative-dominated National Government (1931-35).

  9. Carl.H says:

    I thought if Prime Ministers weren`t temporary they were called dictators ?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: Nice point. Clearly we need a different terminology. Some PMs do, of course, profess that they wish to go on and on, but that usually ensures that they don’t!

  10. macarthursmutterings says:

    this issue and many like it are what is making this such an interesting election

  11. Lord Norton says:

    macarthurmutterings: Indeed, though some parts of the election are proving more interesting than others. Electors seem to exhibit a mix of fascination and boredom (or possibly wariness of politicians).

  12. Carl.H says:

    My 15 year old daughter has never shown interest in politics before last night, she watched some of the debate with me. Her Facebook status at going to bed was :

    “Would David and Gordon stop their little war they got going onnnn!”

    And this morning:

    ” liberal democrats”

    My wife another uninterested party normally, saw the English Democrats leaflet and may have decided to vote that way along with the 19 year old. At least some interest in our politics is coming back….Is that a good sign or bad ?

    This won`t be a hung parliament, it`ll be hanged drawn and quartered. I doubt we`ll see a PM or it will be short lived.

  13. Carl.H says:

    “Change of Prime Minister or Government during the life of a Parliament

    21. A change of Prime Minister may occur as a result of retirement, incapacity, death, or resignation.A change in the party or parties which form the basis of support for the government in the House of Commons may also occur during the life of a Parliament. In appointing a new Prime Minister, as at other points, the Monarch invites the person whom it appears is most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons to serve as Prime Minister and form—or continue—a government. It is for those involved in the political process—and in particular the parties represented in Parliament—to seek to determine and communicate clearly who that person should be, and to find a way to ensure there are arrangements to ensure continuity while that process finds a successor for the Prime Minister. There is no requirement for a dissolution and election to occur.”


    The interesting part is here:


    This type of practice has to stop, there is no democracy or scrutiny in what is being done at the will of GB.

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