A temporary Prime Minister?

The media have been awash with stories of attempts to oust the Prime Minister and replace her with an interim Prime Minister.  There has been little comment on the constitutional propriety of such a move.

Little literature exists on the constitutional position in the event of the Prime Minister dying or the post suddenly becoming vacant.  I published an article on the subject in Public Law, 2016, pp. 18-34, and the following summarises what I wrote.

A Prime Minister remains in office until they tender their resignation.  The expectation, as outlined in the Cabinet Manual, is that a premier, having announced that they will resign, stays in office until their successor is chosen.  Given that leaders are elected nowadays by the party membership, that can take several weeks, running into months.

If there is a sudden vacancy, with no PM in place to hold the fort until a successor is elected, what happens?  There are two principal questions.  Can one have an interim Prime Minister?  And, if so, how is the choice to be made?

The selection of the Prime Minister is the only prerogative power remaining where the Queen does not act formally on advice.  (Until 2011, the other was the power to dissolve Parliament.)  There has thus been considerable sensitivity about having a Deputy Prime Minister, with that being deemed to be a title rather than a post.  It does not confer on the holder any right in respect of succeeding to the premiership, any more than is the case with any member of the Cabinet.

There is no constitutional bar on having an interim Prime Minister.  It is something that has been considered by Cabinet Secretaries on occasion, for example and most notably in the light of the 1984 Brighton bombing.  What would have happened had the PM been killed?  Thought was given to having someone being invited to lead the Government – to chair Cabinet and advise the Queen – while a new leader was chosen by the party.

How, though, to keep the Queen out of political controversy?  What if she asked someone to be interim Prime Minister who would themselves be a possible candidate in the leadership election?  Should it be someone who was not an obvious candidate for the leadership?  In 1984, for example, Willie Whitelaw was considered an obvious candidate – senior in status and age, as well as in the Lords.

However, the possibility of the need for an interim PM was recognised earlier, in the 1970s, following the change in rules for electing a Conservative leader.  If the party was in office and the leader died, what then?  The person who recognised the need to anticipate such an eventuality was the Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Martin Charteris.  He had a meeting with the officers of the 1922 Committee and a memorandum was drawn up.  It recognised that ‘The Sovereign and the State must not be left in a position over a few weeks where there is not a Head of Government.  On the other hand, the Sovereign would not wish to invite a leading figure in the Conservative Party to become Prime Minister before the election was held.’

It was agreed that in those circumstances it would be appropriate to invite a respected figure in the Conservative Party, who could not possibly be considered as a candidate for election as party leader, to assume the role until the election was completed.  At that time, the Lord Chancellor was considered someone who might fit the bill.  That is no longer such a clear option, given the holder may be an MP who is a possible leadership candidate and not a senior peer.  An alternative may be the Leader of the House of Lords, though technically the holder of that office could do the equivalent now of a Lord Home and resign from the Lords, courtesy of the 2014 House of Lords Reform Act, and seek a House of Commons seat.

The challenge therefore would be finding someone who was not a possible contender.  Who would come up with the name?  One possibility would be for advice to be taken via the Queen’s Private Secretary.  Leading figures in the party would be consulted.  The other would be for the Cabinet to put forward a name.  That would seem the least problematic route.  (Formally, if it was a Labour temporary PM, it would be for the Cabinet in consultation with the NEC.)  The relevant point here, given the changes to the office of Lord Chancellor, is that it would be a case of identifying the person who fitted the description at the time rather than designating the holder of a specified post.

Identifying such a person, as some speculation over recent days has shown, may prove problematic.

About Lord Norton

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

  1. Dean Bullen says:

    I know that modesty forbids you from saying it yourself, but I think I can speak for all your regular readers when I say that you would be the obvious choice.

    • tizres says:

      Dean Bullen: Lord Norton is a parliamentarian who has long fought for the right to disassociate peers from the idea of modesty.

      The concept of a temporary PM is problematic enough; perhaps the exchange below, from 2011, sheds some light on one of the consequences of installing a peer in the role:

      Lord Lamont of Lerwick

      Does my noble friend accept that in a number of bicameral systems in the world it is possible for a Prime Minister to be in either House? While it might not be acceptable to public opinion at the moment for a Prime Minister to sit in this House as it is presently constituted, if in, say, 10 years’ time this House is wholly elected, is deemed more legitimate and is demanding more powers, would it not be appropriate and necessary for there to be more senior Ministers in this House? Would it not be wrong for the Government’s legislation to exclude the possibility of a Prime Minister being in this House, as used to be the case right up to the early years of the 20th century?

      Lord Strathclyde

      My Lords, I am deeply impressed by my noble friend’s ambition—10 years to wait does not seem too long at all. The fact is that the Prime Minister is First Lord of the Treasury. It would a very strange thing, given the reduced powers of this House since 1911, for the Prime Minister to be a Member of this House. Therefore, we have no plan or proposal to make it so.


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  3. maude elwes says:

    LN: Surely the last couple of weeks has shown ‘one man’ only who is fit to take the reins in this runaway fiasco and that is Geoffrey Cox. He has a commanding demeanour, his voice is better than Lord Olivier and he comes across as passionately honest. What is the hesitation? Are you all blind in that place?

    He is an asset Conservatives sorely need. If you are looking for a master as leading man, you have it. ‘The Knock at Midnight.’

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  6. Ed Unneland says:

    Someone sits in a room and asks if they want “Wab” or “Hawwold” 😉

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