What if the PM goes under the bus?

Looking fit

On Thursday, there was a parliamentary answer to a question from Conservative MP Peter Bone:

Peter Bone: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister what responsibilities he has in the event of that the Prime Minister is incapacitated and unable to carry out his duties. [34017]

The Deputy Prime Minister: The Prime Minister remains Prime Minister at all times but arrangements, appropriate at the time, would be put in place as necessary, as has been the practice under successive administrations.

This rather side-steps the issue of what happens in the event of the demise of the Prime Minister.  The last PM to die in office was Palmerston, but two Labour leaders have died in Opposition (Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith).  Furthermore, the issue of what to do if the Prime Minister died did arise under Sir Winston Churchill when he had heart attacks (the most serious when his obvious successor, Sir Anthony Eden, was also hospitalised) and at the time of the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984: initially the Cabinet Secretary did not know whether the Prime Minister had survived the attack.

The question of what to do in such circumstances came up when four former Cabinet Secretaries gave evidence to the Constitution Committee in the Lords earlier this month.  Both Lord Armstrong and Lord Butler referred to the events in Brighton.  Lord Turnbull, knowing of my research on the subject, very kindly referred to me as the expert on the matter.  

The problem is that the constitution has not kept up with the practice of the parties.  Election of a leader by the party membership takes time.   If the PM dies, what happens in the interim?  A Deputy Prime Minister has no status distinguishable from that of another Cabinet member.  Could an interim PM be appointed?  There is no precedent for one but no bar on one being appointed.  But for whom would the monarch send?  Could the Cabinet agree on someone?  The problem would be in finding someone with sufficient seniority but who may not be a candidate for the position permanently (since it would likely give them an unfair advantage in the contest).   Such a person may exist on occasion but there is no guarantee that there will always be someone available on whom the Cabinet could agree. 

Failing that, what does the monarch do?   The whole point of drafting a chapter of the proposed Cabinet manual before the election, covering what to do in the event of a hung Parliament, was to keep the monarch out of any political controversy.  How, then, to ensure the monarch is not dragged into controversy by having to take advice and send for someone to be an interim PM if the incumbent dies?  What protocol could keep the monarch at arm’s length from making a decision?  The former Cabinet Secretaries were agreed that there should be some rules agreed – but equally agreed that they should not be in the draft Cabinet manual.  The difficult part is generating and agreeing the rules.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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19 Responses to What if the PM goes under the bus?

  1. Jonathan says:

    Don’t the Americans have a “line of succession” to the presidency, in the event of the president (and even the vice president) dying in office? Perhaps it’s time to have something similar so that there’s no room for controversy or politicising after the event. I don’t see why it gives the temporary PM an advantage in a subsequent leadership contest any more than being the Deputy PM, Foreign Secretary, or whichever senior position he held before the PM’s demise.

    It’s fairly safe to assume that, if the present Deputy PM had to become a temporary PM following an incident with a double decker, he wouldn’t go on to be elected leader of the Conservative Party and so assume the office of PM permanently!

    • Lord Norton says:

      Jonathan: The USA does indeed have a constitutionally-prescribed line of succession, but at least the Vice-President is elected now on the same ticket as the President and it is known would succeed in the event of the President’s demise. The next in line (Speaker of the House) is arguably less justifiable. The holder of the premiership is in a far stronger positions than any other Cabinet minister; Cabinet ministers are equals (more or less) but the PM is more than primus inter pares and has levers of powers denied others.

      Conservative MPs may have some objections if the current Deputy PM was to become PM, even if only on a temporary basis, not least since the premiership is not among those allocated to the Liberal Democrats!

      • franksummers3ba says:

        Lord Norton,

        There are such vast differences between these issues in the US and the UK that a book could be devoted to them. However, I will give what I believe is the reason for the constitutional mechanics operating as they do here . The President and Vice-President are our only nationaly elected popular officials. All other elected offices adhere to state lines and almost all serve the States as indivdual States. Our federal government is an entirely unelected entity except for Congress and the President. Congress legislates, represents, scrutinizes and certifies in our system but does not in any meaningful sense govern. Almost all your cabinet ministers are elected and none of our Secretaries are elected to their posts. The Senate while popularly elected is presided over by the VP of the Republic and is entirely federal and undemocratic even today. California and North Dakota are equal. The only person besides the President and Vice President with a popular and democratic constituency across the Union is the Speaker of the House although not popularly elected. This is all very clear to the five or six of us who really understand American political theory. Also this is a republic.

        It would seem superfluously wasteful to me as the Monarchs get a flash carriage ride and a fancy hat and all sorts of sweeties there on your beach to assume they are all an unsavory sort. I would believe it more just, more British and more honest not to perfect the system and let them hold the reigns till folks muddle through. One might admonish a deputy, another might pressure a party but few would have the Household Guard declare them to be the Parliament I would think.
        However, I would not want you to think I claim to be respectable interpeter who can always be trusted. I am rather a bit of an open subversive:

        Nonetheless, my explanation and supercilious implications as regards our legal establishment here were both sincere…

        I hope you and Prime Minister Cameron both enjoy excellent health for the next five years.

  2. Carl.H says:

    Is there some reason why the noble Lord fails to mention the debacle after the assasination of Spencer Perceval ? Didn’t the Prince Regent then try all others before Lord Liverpool to form a Government ?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: The situation has moved on from then, not least that it is now important to keep the monarch above the sordid and political affair of choosing a premier.

      I wonder if readers know the location where Spencer Perceval was shot is close by the souvenir stand at the bottom of St Stephen’s.

  3. ladytizzy says:

    Assuming an interim leader should hail from the majority party then the issue should be resolved at party level and addressed within their own constitutions. If they haven’t already done so perhaps a ‘Yes’ result after 5 May may jolt them into action.

    Did Mr Blair hand over the reins to Mr Prescott shortly before his heart op?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: The problem with the party constitutions is that electing the leader takes time; the incumbent usually hangs on until a new leader is elected. Laboour does have some provision in their constitution (Cabinet + NEC) in the event of the demise of the leader but the Conservative Party does not. There is the separate issue of who holds the reins if the premier is temporarily incapacitated; as long as it is known in advance, the PM decides who will run things in his absence.

      • ladytizzy says:

        Then the Tories should get on with it, as should all parties.

        During the last US election the Democrats succeeded in creating real fear with the simple reminder that Mrs Palin would be a heartbeat away from the Presidency (Mr Biden was already selected as running mate – go figure).

        It is understandable that the major party leaders in the UK don’t want to portray themselves as presidential but the ‘Vote Blair, get Brown’ did resonate. Would it be so bad if they let us know their choice of succession during an election campaign? Might this also influence potential coalition partners?

  4. Frank Young says:

    Lord Norton, does “the First Secretary of State” (currently William Hague?) not have a role here? Is their anything constitutionally that would allow them to succeed?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Frank Young: William Hague is indeed presently First Secretary of State. It is a post that establishes a Secretary of State as top of the bunch, although formally the constitutional fiction continues to be maintained that there is only one Secretary of State. It does not mean the holder will necessarily succeed if the PM suddenly dies but it does not preclude it either. There is not always a First Secretary of State appointed and in the last Parliament the holder of the title was Lord Mandelson.

  5. howridiculousishowridiculous says:

    Dear Lord Norton,

    If the PM goes under a bus find out who was driving the bus, as Harold Wilson might have said.


  6. Len says:

    I’m not entirely sure why, but my assumption was that the situation would be similar to during purdah, and the Lord Chancellor would take over as a caretaker prime minister in the meantime. Then, of course, I remembered that Lord Chancellors are not as politically unpalatable for party leaders as they used to be – the current one was a candidate in the last leadership election in his party, and I would never have discounted the last Lord Chancellor for that either.

    I suppose it’s a bit of a stretch, but to put a peer in place as a caretaker (with all the conventions that implies) could be an idea – being in the Lords, they’re not likely to take the reins of the party full-time.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Len: It is constitutionally permissible for the PM to be in the Lords, but whether it would be politically acceptable is the issue: it may be that, for a few weeks, it may be. One alternative, of course, is not to have a PM in the interim period but a minister overseeing government: having such a minister in the Lords may be more acceptable in those circumstances.

  7. Dean B says:

    “The problem would be in finding someone with sufficient seniority but who may not be a candidate for the position permanently (since it would likely give them an unfair advantage in the contest). ”

    Surely that need not be a consideration for the monarch? The monarch should not have to take into account possible future party leadership elections, and decisions that are likely not to have even been taken yet with regard to who and who not may stand?
    I would have thought that the principle of “who is most likely to command a majority in the House of Commons” would mean that in practice the decision would be relatively controversy free, and would default to the deputy leader of the largest party, or deputy PM/First Sec of State if there was no deputy leader. The public would understand that the appointment was temporary, and would not be outraged. I don’t think this is much of an issue.

  8. Dean B says:

    Incidentally, with regard to the Labour Party I thought the position was simpler than you imply.
    My understanding was that on the death of the leader, the deputy leader automatically assumes the leadership. This is certainly what I understood happened on John Smith’s death – I don’t know if that has changed since the party constitution was changed.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dean B: You are correct as to the party’s procedures, but what if the deputy leader is not a minister? One suspects that if the deputy leader is a minister and a contender for the leadership, other Cabinet members with an eye on the office may find reasons to object.

  9. Carl.H says:

    “What if the PM goes under the bus?”

    Well if he makes it back from a very troubled middle East only to be run over by a number 11:

    1) His security will sacked.
    2) The driver of the bus will be in custody as no buses stop in Downing Street or actually in the car park of Parliament.
    3) You’ll be very busy giving interviews as the expert on the subject of who should be appointed or not.
    4) Nick Clegg will still be disappointed.
    5) A majority of the electorate won’t care.
    6) Her Majesty will not be amused as it will mess with the plans for the wedding.
    7) Someone will invent a conspiracy involving Boris as Chair of TFL.
    8) The Taliban will claim responsibility.
    9) In 2041 the chair of the committee inquiry into the death of David Cameron will be on an earner.
    10) The newspaper reports of Boris and Ken sharing a joke at the funeral don’t cause uproar.

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