The term ‘order of succession’ in the UK refers to the passage of the Crown upon the death of the Monarch. Upon the death of Elizabeth II on the 8th September 2022 the Crown immediately passed to Prince Charles who became King Charles III. In time, the Crown will pass to Prince William and then Prince George. However, whilst there is a clear order of succession for the Head of State, what is the political order of succession for the Head of Government and how does this compare to the United States?
What is the Order of Succession in the United States?
In the United States, there is a clear order of succession should the President die or be incapacitated. A number of constitutional mechanisms and congressional laws exist to ensure the continuity of government. These include:
Article II, Section 1, Clause 6: Article II of the Constitution stipulates that the vice-president is first in the line of succession if the president is ‘disabled or removed or has died’.
12th Amendment: This constitutional amendment stipulates that the House of Representatives will fill any vacancy in the presidency if the election fails to return an absolute majority for any candidate.
Why was the 25th Amendment passed?
The 25th Amendment was passed in 1967 to clear up some uncertainties that surrounded the Order of Succession. There were a number of occasions historically where Article II of the constitution had been insufficient in clarifying the occasions on and the way in which the Vice-President would assume the Presidency:
- In 1841 President William Henry Harrison became the first President to die in office. There was constitutional uncertainty as to whether his Vice-President John Tyler would become acting President or would himself assume the President. Tyler himself insisted that he had become President and insisted that he was sworn in as such. Eventually both Houses of Congress passed a resolution confirming that he had assumed the office of President.
- In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke. He was unable to discharge his duties as President. However, his condition was hidden not just from public view but from that of Congress. In the absence of a clear successor, the office of President was largely run by his wife, Edith Wilson.
- There were 16 occasions prior to 1967 when the office of Vice-President had become vacant. However, before the 25th Amendment there was no constitutional mechanism to fill the office of Vice-President.
What did the 25th Amendment do?
The 25th Amendment had four sections, all of which did different things:
Section 1 – This clarified that the Vice-President would become President if the President died or resigned. This is why, for example, Gerald Ford became President hen Richard Nixon became the only President to resign in August 1974.
Section 2 – If there is a vacancy for Vice-President (for example, when Gerald Ford assumed the Presidency), the President would nominate a Vice-President to be confirmed by both Houses of Congress. Prior to this, the Vice-Presidency would remain vacant if the Vice-President assumed the Presidency. For example, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 and Lyndon B. Johnson became President, the Vice-Presidency remained vacant until the 1964 Presidential Election.
Section 3 – This allows the president to voluntarily transfer his powers to the Vice-President. This was invoked twice by George W. Bush when he underwent operations and temporarily handed power to his Vice-President, Dick Cheney.
Section 4 – This section allows for the removal of the President if a majority of the Cabinet vote in favour of such a move. The removal must be because they believe the President is ‘unable to discharge the powers of his office’. In 1987 it was rumoured that the cabinet of Ronald Reagan considered invoking section 4 following concerns about his work ethic and a belief that he was losing some of his mental faculties.
Where does the US Order of Succession come from?
The Constitution itself does not outline the Order of Succession. Instead, it leaves it to Congress to decide the order:
In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the US Constitution
The latest Act of Congress to do this was the Presidential Succession Act (1947) which created the line as it stands today:
- Speaker of the House of Representatives
- President Pro Tempore of the Senate
- Secretary of State
- Secretary of the Treasury
- Secretary of Defense
- Attorney General
- Secretary of the Interior
- Secretary of Agriculture
- Secretary of Commerce
- Secretary of Labor
- Secretary of Health and Human Services
- Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
- Secretary of Transportation
- Secretary of Energy
- Secretary of Education
- Secretary of Veterans Affairs
- Secretary of Homeland Security
Famously, at the State of the Union Address, when the Cabinet gather to hear the President address Congress, one member is nominated to be the ‘Designated Survivor’. This is to ensure there is continuity of government should a disaster strike. This is the premise of the Netflix Series of the same name.
Therefore, in the United States there is a clear line of succession. Since the passing of the 25th Amendment in 1967, it is now pretty unambiguous and gives clarity as to who will lead the government if the President is in someway incapacitated.
What is the political order of succession in the UK?
The ‘order of succession’ is far less clear in the UK. As a system that relies heavily on an uncodified constitution, as opposed to a codified constitution, this perhaps unsurprising. The lack of a formal order of succession was bought into focus in 2020 following then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s stay in intensive care during which he has readily admitted that at times it was 50-50 whether he would make it out.
Standing in for him during his period in intensive care and recovery was Dominic Raab, the then Foreign Secretary. Raab took over the powers of the Prime Minister as a result of being First Secretary of State.
The position of First Secretary of State is not a formal constitutional role. It is instead awarded by the Prime Minister to the minister that they wish to the de facto second person in government. In recent years this title has been bestowed on a number of individuals including Damian Green (under Theresa May), George Osborne and William Hague (both under David Cameron). Notably, in the absence of the Prime Minister, the First Secretary of State usually covers PMQs in the Prime Minister’s absence, as William Hague did famously against Harriet Harman:
The position of First Secretary of State is often bestowed upon a person that the PM implicitly trusts. After becoming Prime Minister Liz Truss organised her Cabinet. However, she decided not to fill the position of First Secretary of State.
What is the position of Deputy Prime Minister?
Sometimes, the position of Deputy Prime Minister has been created in the UK. This last happened between 2010-2015 when Nick Clegg was Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition Government. However, despite the largely honorific title, Clegg would not have taken over from David Cameron if he was seriously incapacitated. Instead, William Hague or George Osborne, the First Secretaries of State, would have deputised until the Conservative Party could pick a new leader.
When choosing her first Cabinet Liz Truss did appoint a Deputy Prime Minister in Therese Coffey, who also assumed the position of Secretary of State for Health. Coffey and Truss have been long time political allies and the decision to appoint Coffey as Deputy Prime Minister was not a huge surprise to onlookers.
What are the disadvantages of the UK political order of succession?
One of the potential disadvantages of the British system, as compared to the US, is the lack of a democratic mandate that a successor may have. Unlike in the US, where members of the Cabinet have to be confirmed by the Senate, the appointment of the Cabinet in the UK is solely a prerogative power. So, in the case of the First Secretary of State, like all other cabinet members, they are in place without a wider democratic mandate and may act with all the powers of the Prime Minister. This was particularly problematic in the case of Peter Mandelson who was Gordon Brown’s First Secretary of State between June 2009 and May 2010. At the time he was not an MP and was a member of the House of Lords and therefore had no democratic mandate whatsoever. Of course, in Britain, the Prime Minister themselves is indirectly elected to be PM, so the same criticism could be levelled at them. However, generally, the Prime Minister receives a democratic mandate from the people in a General Election, as for example Boris Johnson did in December 2019.
So, should Britain codify the line of succession? At present, it seems unnecessary. The position of First Secretary of State or Deputy Prime Minister allows for someone to quickly deputise for the Prime Minister, if needed. In the event of the death of a Prime Minister the party of government would be able to hold a leadership election to quickly choose a new party leader. In addition, the process whereby Dominic Raab took over in April 2020 has made constitutional arrangements for political succession more widely understood.
Whilst the Order of Succession for the Head of State in the UK is very clear, the political order of succession has always been less clear. Unlike the US, it is not enshrined in statute, but instead relies on convention. However, the assumption of Prime Ministerial powers by Dominic Raab in April 2020 has helped to make the situation in the UK more transparent.
First Secretary of State – The office given to the person who is essentially Number Two to the Prime Minister in Government. It often, but not always, goes hand in hand with the post of Deputy Prime Minister.
Deputy Prime Minister – A position in the UK that is often used honorifically. The current Deputy Prime Minister Threse Coffey.