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Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
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Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

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Politics of the United Kingdom
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The Prime Minister is the chief officer of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom (before 1801, the Kingdom of Great Britain). The full title of the current prime minister, Tony Blair, is 'Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Until the 18th century, the monarch's chief minister could hold any of a number of titles; usually either First Lord, Lord Chancellor, Lord Privy Seal, or one of the Secretaries of State. During the late 18th Century, the term "prime minister" came to be used: an unofficial title for the one who was "premier among ministers". In some sense, the office may still be thought of as only a de facto one in theory, perhaps, the only real function of the prime minister as such is to "form a government" (that is, appoint the cabinet). All the actual business of running the country and spending the budget is carried out by more explicitly defined cabinet ministers, empowered by various acts of parliament. Certainly the prime minister's salary and public accommodation (see below) are technically provided to him as First Lord of the Treasury, an office to which he has appointed himself. (The last prime minister not to have been First Lord of the Treasury was Lord Salisbury (-1902).)

However, the office of "prime minister" has been explicitly referred to a number of times in emergency wartime legislation; and in 1905, the title was in a sense officially recognized, when the "prime minister" was given a position within the 'order of precedence' (behind the Archbishop of York). The first "actual" prime minister, in this sense, was Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

Table of contents
1 Responsibilities
2 Becoming Prime Minister
3 Resignation
4 First Among Equals or 'semi-president'?
5 Origins of the Office
6 10 Downing Street
7 List of Prime Ministers and First Lords of the Treasury
8 Former Prime Ministers - Living
9 See also
10 External links


The Prime Minister's main responsibilities include setting the direction of the government, appointing members of the Cabinet, coordinating the activities of the Cabinet and government departments, participating in ceremonial occasions, and being the 'face' of the government in the UK and abroad.

Twice Daily while Parliament is in Session a select coterie of political journalists ('the lobby') is ushered into the premises of The Foreign Press Association (or sometimes 10 Downing Street itself) where they partake in a question and answer session with a civil servant (the "Prime Minister's Official Spokesman"). The civil servant's job is to answer questions on behalf of the Prime Minister, and to alert them to governmental happenings that Number 10 feels they should know about.

Becoming Prime Minister

The Prime Minister is technically appointed by the Monarch. By convention, he or she always chooses the leader of the party that holds a majority in the House of Commons. If one party does not have a simple majority but two or more parties form a coalition (a rare occurrence, due to the British electoral system), the leader of the coalition is chosen. If the two major parties (Labour, Conservatives) are evenly matched in the House of Commons and neither can form a coalition with minor parties, then the monarch is free to choose the leader of either party as Prime Minister, though in reality that choice would be decided by which one if any was the outgoing prime minister. A choice could not be made until the outgoing prime minister resigned, at which point whichever was the Leader of the Opposition would be asked to form a government.


The Prime Minister and the government must resign upon the passage of a vote of no confidence or the loss of a vote of confidence, unless the defeated Prime Minister seeks a dissolution of parliament which in theory the monarch may refuse but in practice never does. In practice party discipline is usually strong enough to make these votes rare, with only three successful votes of no confidence since 1885. The Prime Minister must also retain the support of his or her party's parliamentary delegation, and in a number of cases including that of Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher, a party will oust a Prime Minister who appears to be unpopular.

The leader of the second largest party in the House of Commons is termed the 'Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition'.

First Among Equals or 'semi-president'?

In theory, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is a primus inter pares (first among equals) in the British Cabinet. In appointing a cabinet the Prime Minister generally includes members of parliament who have political bases of their own and who could potentially be a rival of the Prime Minister. In addition, the Prime Minister retains very limited power to appoint members of the British Civil Service and there is usually tension between elected officials and the civil service. However, in practice, a strong Prime Minister can so dominate government that they become a 'semi-president', that is they fulfil the leadership role in a country in the same way as a president, but do not carry out the ceremonial duties of a Head of State. Examples include William Ewart Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

Origins of the Office

The office of Prime Minister originated out of the office of First Lord of the Treasury. The First Lord of the Treasury was the senior commissioner responsible for administration of the royal treasury when there was no Lord Treasurer, an office which originated in mediaeval times, and ceased to be used after 1714. It was not, however, until Sir Robert Walpole (1721-1742) that the First Lord of the Treasury became the most powerful minister, and became head of government. Prior to that there was no clear head of government, and the most powerful minister could hold any one of a number of titles (including First Lord of the Treasury and Lord Privy Seal). Even after Walpole, the First Lord was not always the most powerful member of the government, even as recently as 1902 when Lord Salisbury, the Lord Privy Seal, served as Prime Minister while Balfour was First Lord of the Treasury. The Prime Minister remains First Lord of the Treasury, and as such, not as Prime Minister, becomes the tenant of 10 Downing Street.

Although Sir Robert Walpole is considered to be the first Prime Minister, the term Prime Minister and conventions regarding appointment did not originate until later. The term was initially an insult, equivalent to teacher's pet, implying that the minister was the puppet of the monarch. Until Robert Peel's unsuccessful attempt to govern without a majority in Parliament, the monarch still retained a great deal of discretion over the naming of the Prime Minister. The title was not formally adopted (though it had long been used) until the premiership of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1905-08) when a 'prime minister' was given a status just behind that of the Archbishop of York.

10 Downing Street

The Prime Minister as First Lord of the Treasury traditionally lives at 10 Downing Street, in London. This house was offered by King George II to Sir Robert Walpole as a personal gift. Walpole would not accept it personally, but agreed to receive it in his official capacity as First Lord of the Treasury. Walpole took up residence in 1735. Most subsequent holders of this office have lived there, though some nineteenth century prime ministers chose to live in their own homes. A small number were not First Lord of the Treasury, and so were not entitled to live in Downing Street. Harold Wilson and John Major both lived in Admiralty House for a time. During part of Wilson's time 10 Downing Street underwent major structural renovation involving total rebuilding, while Major moved out in the aftermath of an Provisional IRA mortar attack on the building, while repairs took place. On his election in 1997, Tony Blair took up residence at No. 11 Downing Street, swapping No. 10 with his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, as the residential accommodation at No. 10 is smaller and Blair had four children while Brown was at the time unmarried (the two houses, and others, are interconnected).

List of Prime Ministers and First Lords of the Treasury

Looking back at the eighteenth century, it is often unclear who should be considered the Prime Minister, with holders of the offices of First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Privy Seal, and Secretary of State all at one time or another acting as the principal minister in various governments. For instance Lord Carteret Secretary of State for the Northern Department from 1742 to 1744 and William Pitt the Elder as Secretary of State for the Southern Department from 1756 to 1757 and again from 1757 to 1761 had many of the powers of a Prime Ministers, although other men held the principal office of Lord Treasurer. This list follows conventional practice in not listing such figures as Prime Ministers. However, when in 1766 Pitt, created Earl of Chatham, was asked by the King to form a ministry, he chose to take the lesser office of Lord Privy Seal, rather than taking over the Treasury. Nevertheless, he is generally considered to have been Prime Minister, due to his having been asked by the King to form a ministry. Such considerations make the earlier part of the list somewhat less authoritative in its determination of who, exactly, was Prime Minister at such times.

Key: Whig Tory or Conservative Conservative/Unionist National Government Peelite/Coalition Liberal Labour

Prime Minister Entered office Left office Party

Sir Robert Walpole 4 April 1721 (15 May 1730) 11 February 1742 Whig

Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington 16 February 1742 2 July 1743 Whig

Henry Pelham 27 August 1743 7 March 1754 Whig

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle 16 March 1754 16 November 1756 Whig

William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire 16 November 1756 25 June 1757 Whig

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle 2 July 1757 26 May 1762 Whig

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute 26 May 1762 16 April 1763 Tory

George Grenville 16 April 1763 13 July 1765 Whig

Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham 13 July 1765 30 July 1766 Whig

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham 30 July 1766 14 October 1768 Whig

Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton 14 October 1768 28 January 1770 Whig

Frederick North, Lord North 28 January 1770 22 March 1782 Tory

Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham 27 March 1782 1 July 1782 Whig

William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne 4 July 1782 2 April 1783 Whig

William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland 2 April 1783 19 December 1783 Coalition

William Pitt The Younger 19 December 1783 14 March 1801 Tory

Henry Addington 17 March 1801 10 May 1804 Tory

William Pitt the Younger 10 May 1804 23 January 1806 Tory

William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Lord Grenville 11 February 1806 31 March 1807 Whig

William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland 31 March 1807 4 October 1809 Tory

Spencer Perceval 4 October 1809 11 May 1812 Tory

Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool 9 June 1812 10 April 1827 Tory

George Canning 10 April 1827 8 August 1827 Tory

Frederick John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich 31 August 1827 22 January 1828 Tory

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington 22 January 1828 22 November 1830 Tory

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey 22 November 1830 16 July 1834 Whig

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne 16 July 1834 17 November 1834 Whig

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (caretaker) 17 November 1834 9 December 1834 Conservative

Sir Robert Peel 10 December 1834 18 April 1835 Conservative

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne 18 April 1835 30 August 1841 Whig

Sir Robert Peel 30 August 1841 30 June 1846 Conservative

Lord John Russell, later 1st Earl Russell 30 June 1846 23 February 1852 Whig

Edward Geoffrey Smith Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby 23 February 1852 19 December 1852 Conservative

George Hamilton Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen 19 December 1852 6 February 1855 Peelite/Coalition

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston 6 February 1855 20 February 1858 Whig

Edward Geoffrey Smith Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby 20 February 1858 12 June 1859 Conservative

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston 12 June 1859 18 October 1865 Liberal

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell 29 October 1865 28 June 1866 Liberal

Edward Geoffrey Smith Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby 28 June 1866 27 February 1868 Conservative

Benjamin Disraeli 27 February 1868 3 December 1868 Conservative

William Ewart Gladstone 3 December 1868 20 February 1874 Liberal

Benjamin Disraeli (from 1876, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield) 20 February 1874 23 April 1880 Conservative

William Ewart Gladstone 23 April 1880 23 June 1885 Liberal

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury 23 June 1885 1 February 1886 Conservative

William Ewart Gladstone 1 February 1886 25 July 1886 Liberal

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury 3 August 1886 15 August 1892 Conservative

William Ewart Gladstone 15 August 1892 5 March 1894 Liberal

Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery 5 March 1894 25 June 1895 Liberal

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury 25 June 1895 12 July 1902 Conservative/Unionist

Arthur Balfour 12 July 1902 5 December 1905 Conservative/Unionist

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman 5 December 1905 7 April 1908 Liberal

Herbert Henry Asquith 7 April 1908 27 May 1915 Liberal

Herbert Henry Asquith 27 May 1915 7 December 1916 Liberal/Coalition Government

David Lloyd George 7 December 1916 23 October 1922 National Liberal/Coalition Government

Andrew Bonar Law 23 October 1922 22 May 1923 Conservative

Stanley Baldwin 22 May 1923 22 January 1924 Conservative

Ramsay MacDonald 22 January 1924 4 November 1924 Labour

Stanley Baldwin 4 November 1924 5 June 1929 Conservative

Ramsay MacDonald 5 June 1929 24 August 1931 Labour

Ramsay MacDonald 24 August 1931 7 June 1935 National Labour/National Government

Stanley Baldwin 7 June 1935 28 May 1937 Conservative/National Government

Neville Chamberlain 28 May 1937 10 May 1940 Conservative/National Government

Winston Churchill 10 May 1940 23 May 1945 Conservative/Coalition Government

Winston Churchill 23 May 1945 26 July 1945 Conservative/"Caretaker" Government

Clement Attlee 26 July 1945 26 October 1951 Labour

Sir Winston Churchill 26 October 1951 6 April 1955 Conservative

Sir Anthony Eden 6 April 1955 10 January 1957 Conservative

Harold Macmillan 10 January 1957 19 October 1963 Conservative

Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Earl of Home 19 October 1963 16 October 1964 Conservative

Harold Wilson 16 October 1964 19 June 1970 Labour

Edward Heath 19 June 1970 4 March 1974 Conservative

Harold Wilson 4 March 1974 5 April 1976 Labour

James Callaghan 5 April 1976 4 May 1979 Labour

Margaret Thatcher 4 May 1979 28 November 1990 Conservative

John Major 28 November 1990 2 May 1997 Conservative

Tony Blair 2 May 1997 in office Labour

Key: Whig Tory or Conservative Conservative/Unionist National Government Peelite/Coalition Liberal Labour

Former Prime Ministers - Living

There are currently four former Prime Ministers still alive. As is customary, most have since been granted honours. They are:

See also

External links