The role of First Secretary of State

Dominic Raab, as First Secretary of State, has been designated by the Prime Minister to stand in for him while he recovers from Coronavirus.  Mr Raab is also Foreign Secretary and there have been calls for him to step aside and let another minister take on that role.

There are two salient points to be made.  First, as explained in my earlier post, First Secretary of State is a ministerial post.  The holder receives seals of office and a salary.  It can serve therefore as a free-standing appointment.  It is not like someone being given the title of Deputy Prime Minister and having to be appointed to a ministerial post for the purpose of receiving a salary.  Although all bar one of those who have been appointed First Secretary of State since the post was created by Harold Macmillan for R. A. Butler in 1962 have concurrently held other substantive ministerial responsibilities, it is not a requirement.

Secondly, the holder has performed tasks that fit well with standing in for a Prime Minister.  The First Secretary is ideally placed, as Butler (pictured), put it, to fulfil tasks of ‘correlation, co-ordination and chairmanship of committees’.  Butler saw his own role especially in terms of co-ordination.  As he told the House of Commons, ‘My experience is that… I can do better coordination in the present Conservative Government, placed as I am as First Secretary of State, than I could in charge of a great Department of State’.  Holders have been used to chair Cabinet committees.  This was a good part of the role accorded Michael Heseltine in 1995, though also encompassing a co-ordinating role: ‘Heseltine’s job’, as Anthony Seldon recorded, ‘was to combine the chairing of several Cabinet committees with a central role alongside Major coordinating and “selling” government policy’.  Damian Green’s principal role was to chair Cabinet committees and to be available whenever Theresa May was unavailable.

The post is thus is a discrete one.  The holder does not have to hold any other post.  Where the First Secretary holds another post, another minister could deputise in respect of the latter or, indeed, another person could be appointed to it.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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5 Responses to The role of First Secretary of State

  1. Happy Easter Lord Norton. Nice analysis.

  2. Robin Stanley Taylor says:

    “Damian Green served solely as First Secretary of State”
    He also held the job of Minister for the Cabinet Office, which itself would appear to be legally insubstantial given that every other incumbent has been either Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster or Paymaster-General. Interestingly Green’s successor David Lidington maintained the former’s status as de facto deputy and precedence over the rest of the cabinet despite not being DPM or FSoS, which is quite a rare occurrence.

    The main difference between the First Secretary of State and all the others is that he is a minister without a ministry. While there is an Order in Council to appoint a new First Secretary of State each time, there has never been a statutory instrument to establish a corresponding First Department. For this reason there is a little similarity with the title of Deputy Prime Minister in that leaving the position vacant has the same practical effect as abolishing it (indeed the press often don’t know which term to use), because the role cannot be proven to exist if it is not occupied.

  3. Croft says:

    LN we have a virtual lords starting with Microsoft Teams (witht eh common on Zoom)

    Any ideas why?

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