The Prime Minister is the Head of Government in the UK.

The terms government and parliament are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably. So what differentiates the two and how is the Government formed in the UK?

Where does the Government come from?

Bagehot lauded the ‘fusion of powers’.

Britain is parliamentary democracy. This means that there is a fusion of powers between the Executive and Legislature, something that Victorian constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot called the ‘efficient secret’ of the UK constitution. The government is formed from Parliament and is based on the size of the political parties represented within it – with the largest party normally forming the government. The Prime Minister is the person who can ‘best command the confidence of the House of Commons’ and is therefore usually also the leader of the largest party.

Biden gives the State of the Union Address.

This is fundamentally different from a Presidential System which has a separation of powers and individuals cannot be members of different branches. For example, when the US President addresses Congress at the State of the Union he has to ask the Speaker of the House for permission to enter the floor of the house. The exception to this separation of personnel is the Vice-President who is a member of two branches being in the Executive and being President of the Senate.

Why might there be a change of government?

There are three ways that a change of government may take place:

  1. The most likely reason for a change of government will be that a General Election has taken place and the governing party is no longer the largest party following the result. For example, in 1997 the Conservative Party went from 343 seats in Parliament to 165 as Labour won a 179 seat majority.

2. A government may also change due to the resignation of the Prime Minister in-between elections. In recent years this has happened on a number of occasions:

    Liz Truss – Resigned in October 2022 after a disastrous 44 day period as Prime Minister.

    Boris Johnson – Resigned in September 2022 following a series of political scandals, including Partygate.

    Theresa May – Resigned in July 2019 after failing to get her Brexit Deal through Parliament.

    David Cameron – Resigned in July 2016 after unsuccessfully leading the Remain campaign during the EU Referendum.

    In this case, a new government will be formed after the party with the most seats in Parliament chooses a new leader. This means that the PM the UK can be chosen by a very small electorate:

    Boris Johnson – Became PM after the votes of 92,153 Conservative Party Members. This is approximately 0.137% of the UK Population.

    Liz Truss – Became PM after the votes of 81,326 Conservative Party Members. This is approximately 0.121% of the UK Population.

    Liz Truss became Prime Minister after winning the votes of 81,326 Conservative Party Members.

    3. A government loses a Motion of No Confidence in the House of Commons. This is a formal vote that says that Parliament no longer wish the government to remain in place.

    Why are Motions of no Confidence important?

    The fact that the government must have the support of the House of Commons is very important because it is what gives the government its democratic legitimacy. It is an important convention of the UK constitution that at any time Parliament can test whether it has confidence in the Government through a Motion of No Confidence. Some examples of this include:

    Boris Johnson (2022) – Won the vote by 347-238

    Theresa May (2019) – Won the vote by 325-306

    John Major (1994) – Won the vote 330-303

    James Callaghan (1979) – Lost the vote by 311-310

    Notably, it is very unusual for a Government to lose a Motion of No Confidence as they usually have a majority and MPs are unlikely to vote to bring down their own government. However, the fact that they can, is an important constitutional point.

    Who makes up the Government?

    The Government is made up of the Prime Minister, the 22 members of the Cabinet and junior ministers. By law there are a maximum of 109 paid members of the Government, but sometimes there are also unpaid members.

    In February 2022 there were 123 Ministers in total. Most Ministers sit in the House of Commons, but some may sit in the House of Lords. There are four different levels of Minister:

    Prime Minister – Traditionally the Prime Minister was ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) but the role has become increasingly presidentialised. The Prime Minister is now clearly the focal point of Government. The Prime Minister is entitled to a salary of £80,807 on top of his salary as an MP (currently £86,584). This means his total remuneration is £167,391.

    Secretary of State – There are currently 16 Secretaries of State. Secretaries of State head most Government Departments. These include the three of the four Great Offices of State (Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister). Secretaries of State are entitled to salary of £72,454, in addition to their salary as an MP, meaning a total remuneration of £159,038.

    Minister of State – Ministers of State are a mid-level government minister. They tend to be given a particular portfolio within a Department. For example, Stuart Andrew is the Minister for Prisons and Probation with the Ministry of Justice. The number of Ministers of State differs depending on the remit of department. Ministers of State are entitled to salary of £34,367, in addition to their salary as an MP meaning a total remuneration of £120,951.

    The Duke of Devonshire was less than complementary of the role of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State.

    Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State – The lowest level of Minister is a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. Unlike Ministers of State, they tend to have a catch-all position and act as required by Government Ministers. Famously, the Duke of Devonshire, part of Macmillan’s government from 1957-1963, said:

    ” No one who hasn’t been a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State has any conception of how unimportant a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State is “

    Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State are entitled to salary of £24,378, in addition to their salary as an MP meaning a total remuneration of £110,962.

    In addition, there are also Parliamentary Private Secretaries. These are MPs who act as unpaid assistants to Government Ministers and Departments. The role is often taken by relatively new MPs who the whips feel may have the potential to become Ministers in the future. 

    Does Britain have a Deputy Prime Minister to take over from the Prime Minister?

    From time to time Britain has a Deputy Prime Minister. However, unlike the position of Vice-President in the US, which is constitutionally mandated, the position of Deputy Prime Minister is more honorific. In fact, there are significant periods during which it has been vacant:

    Since this graphic, Oliver Dowden has also become Prime Minister.

    Since 1962 there has also been the position First Secretary of State. This indicates seniority over over Secretaries of State and is often held by the same person as Prime Minister. Between 2019 and 2021 the position was held by Dominic Raab. This is why Raab deputised for the Prime Minister whilst he was incapacitated with COVID-19.

    Dr Luke Evans, who has a well-followed Tik Tok account @drlukeevansmp, became a PPS in 2022.

    Are backbenchers members of the government?

    Whilst frontbenchers (called because they sit on the Treasury Benches at the front of the House Commons) are members of the Government, backbenchers are not. However, the government will require its own backbenchers to support them in order to remain in position. If a governing party did not have the support of its own backbenchers it would lose a motion of no confidence and no longer be able to gover

    Who are the Whips?

    Simon Hart is the current Chief Whip.

    The whips are MPs who are assigned within a party to keep discipline and ensure that their MPs vote the way the party leadership wants them to in the House of Commons. The Government Chief Whip is not a formal member of the Cabinet, but does customarily attend Cabinet Meetings. This in an indication of their importance, as is the fact that the Government Whips Office is at No.12 Downing Street.

    What is the meant by the Payroll Vote? 

    Government Ministers are bound by an important convention called Collective Responsibility. This means that whatever their personal view of a governmental decision, they must support it in public, or tender their resignation. As part of this, they are expected to vote with the Government in the House of Commons and not rebel. This means that the government can usually guarantee the votes of more than 109 MPs who are on their payroll – hence the term payroll vote. One of the reasons governments lose so few votes (between 1945 and 2019 99.2% of all divisions were won by the Government) is because of the existence of the payroll vote.

    Where is the Government based?

    Government Departments are mainly located in Whitehall, London. As such, when people refer to the Government they often use the metonym of ‘Whitehall’ in the same way that ‘Westminster’ is used as a metonym for Parliament.

    Most Government Departments are within walking distance of each other.

    What is the role of the Civil Service?

    Civil Servants are meant to be politically anonymous, but it did not turn out that way for Sue Gray!

    The Civil Service are the permanent set of staff that carry out the wishes of elected politicians. Civil Servants do not make public policy, but they are responsible for carrying it out – the famous maxim is that ‘Civil Servants advise, Ministers decide’. The most senior Civil Servant is the Cabinet Secretary who is based in the Cabinet Office. There is also a Permanent Secretary for each department.

    The Size of the Civil Service – (c) Institute of Government
    Rankings in the Civil Service – (c) Institute of Government

    Civil Servants have three characteristics that distinguish them from Ministers:

    Neutrality – Members of the Senior Civil Service are not allowed to actively belong to a political party and are there to carry out policy, whatever the Government. As Jim Hacker explains on the famous comedy series Yes Minister, this can cause problems…

    Anonymity – Unlike politicians, Civil Servants are not meant to be public figures.

    Permanence – Unlike Ministers who change with a reshuffle or General Election, Civil Servants are permanent and add continuity to the deliverance of Government. This is different from the United States where there are around 4,000 political appointees who may be required to change when there is a change of administration.

    Article Summary

    The Government is the Executive Branch in the UK political system. In the UK there is a fusion of powers and the Government must be formed from Parliament. As a parliamentary democracy, the government can only function with the support of Parliament and must resign if they lose a Motion of No Confidence.

    Key Terms

    Government – The group of people with the authority to govern a country or state. In Britain, the Government is normally formed from the largest party in Parliament.

    Executive Branch – he branch of government that holds responsibility for the running of a country on a day-to-day basis. In Britain, Boris Johnson is head of the Executive Branch.

    Parliamentary Democracy – A system in which the Executive derives its power from its position in Parliament.

    Presidential System – A system of government in which there is a clear separation of powers. In this system of government the different branches of government are clearly separate from each other. The U.S and Germany are Presidential Systems.

    Fusion of Powers – A system where different branches of government can be intermingled. For example, the Prime Minister is Head of the Executive but, as an MP, is also a member of the legislature. This arguably gives them enormous power.

    Democratic Legitimacy – The right of an individual or group to govern because they have an electoral mandate.

    Frontbenchers – A member of the Government or Shadow Government.

    Westminster – The metonym used for Parliament.

    Whitehall – The metonym used for the Government apparatus.

    Secretary of State – The highest level of Government Minister. Secretaries of State sit in the Cabinet. They are responsible for an entire Government Department.

    Minister of State – The mid-level Government Minister.

    Under-Secretary of State – The lowest level of Government Minister.

    Great Offices of State – A term given to describe the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

    Civil Service – The individuals who work for the Government but are not elected. They are responsible for implementing, not making, government policy.

    Separation of Powers – When the different branches of government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial are clearly defined and do not overlap with each other. The US Constitution allows for a clear separation of powers.

    Collective Responsibility – A convention in the UK constitution that dictates that Government Ministers must abide by collective Cabinet decisions in public. If they feel unable to do so the convention is that they resign.

    Payroll Vote – The term for the votes the Government can expect to rely on in Parliament due to the convention of Collective Responsibility.

    Specification Links:
    Edexcel: Paper 2 – 3.1 (Prime Minister and Executive)
    AQA: Paper 1 – (The Prime Minister and Cabinet)
    WJEC: Paper 1 – 1.2 (The Government of the UK)

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