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Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

The Prime Minister is the most senior officer of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom (before 1801, the Kingdom of Great Britain). The full title of the office is Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury, and Minister for the Civil Service of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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Responsibilities

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.

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 British 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.

Resignation

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 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 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. (see Treasury (British)) 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, Secretary of State and Lord Privy Seal). 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 some 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 Canterbury.

10 Downing Street

The Prime Minister as First Lord of the Treasury traditionally lives at No. 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.

List of Prime Ministers



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