Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

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In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister is the head of government, exercising many of the executive functions nominally vested in the Sovereign, who is head of state. According to custom, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet (which he or she heads) are responsible for their actions to Parliament, of which they are members by (modern) convention. The current Prime Minister is Tony Blair (of the Labour Party), who has been in office since 1997. For the complete list of British Prime Ministers, see List of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom.

As the title suggests, the Prime Minister is the monarch's principal advisor. Historically, the monarch's chief minister (if, as was not always the case, any one person could be singled out as such) might have held any of a number of offices: Lord Chancellor, Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord High Steward, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Privy Seal, or Secretary of State among others. With the emergence, in the eighteenth century, of government by a cabinet of these ministers, its head came in time to be called the "Prime Minister" (sometimes also "Premier" or "First Minister"); to this day the Prime Minister always also holds one of the more specific ministerial positions, if only in a nominal sense—the official title of the Prime Minister's ministerial position is First Lord of the Treasury. Sir Robert Walpole is generally regarded as the first Prime Minister in the modern sense.

The Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign, who is bound by constitutional convention to choose the individual most likely to command the support of the House of Commons (normally, the leader of the party with a majority in that body). Should the Prime Minister lose the confidence of the House of Commons (indicated, for example, by the passage of a no confidence motion), he or she is morally obliged by similar conventions either to resign (in which case the Sovereign can try to find another Prime Minister who has the House's confidence) or to request the monarch to call a general election. Since the premiership is in some small sense still a de facto position, the office's powers are mainly a matter of custom rather than law, deriving from the incumbent's ability to appoint (through the Sovereign) his or her Cabinet colleagues, as well as from certain uses of the royal prerogative which may be exercised directly by the Prime Minister, or by the Monarch on the Prime Minister's advice. Some commentators have pointed out that, in practice, the powers of the office are subject to very few checks, especially in an era when Parliament and the Cabinet are seen as unwilling to challenge dominant Prime Ministers whose attention is increasingly turned not toward Parliament but toward the news media.



Historically, the bulk of the power over the Government of the Kingdom was vested in the Sovereign, acting on the advice of bodies such as Parliament and the Privy Council. Over several years, the Cabinet evolved from the Privy Council, as the monarch began the practice of consulting a few confidential advisors rather than the Council at large. These bodies, however, bore little resemblance to modern Cabinets; they were often not led by a single figure such as a Prime Minister, they often failed to act in unison, and they were appointed and dismissed entirely at the whim of the monarch, with little parliamentary control.

The history of the British Prime Ministers owes much more to speculation of historians, rather than to legal acts. The origin of the term prime minister and the question to whom the designation should first be applied have long been issues of scholarly and political debate.

There is no acceptable substance to the concept of a British Prime Minister prior to its emerging into legal light by (a) the royal warrant of 1905 that placed the Prime Minister, mentioned as such, in the order of precedence in England immediately after the Archbishop of York; (b) its mention in the Chequers Estate Act of 1917, and (c) its final and definitive birth through the Ministers of the Crown Act of 1937.

There are numerous categorical testimonies deep into the 19th century decrying the notion of a First or Prime Minister, credibly declaring the concept alien to the Constitution, and the term actually emerges as a creature of historians, not lawyers or Parliament - indeed the contrary is best documented.

In 1741 it was declared in the Commons that "According to our Constitution we can have no sole and prime minister... every... officer has his own proper department; and no officer ought to meddle in the affairs belonging to the department of another." In the same year the Lords agreed that "We are persuaded that a sole, or even a first minister, is an officer unknown to the law of Britain, inconsistent with the Constitution of the country and destructive of liberty in any Government whatsoever."

On the other hand, in an interview by Lord Melville with William Pitt in 1803, the latter argued that "this person generally called the first minister" was an absolute necessity for a government to function, and expressed his belief that this person should be the minister in charge of the finances. In 1806 it was asserted in the Commons that "the Constitution abhors the idea of a prime minister", and as late as 1829 the Commons again asserted that "nothing could be more mischievous or unconstitutional than to recognize by act of parliament the existence of such an office."

Beatson's Political Index of 1786 gives the list of Prime Ministers and Favourites from the Accession of Henry VIII to the Present Time. Since 1714 Beatson could only find one Sole Minister, and that was Sir Robert Walpole. At all subsequent periods he felt that he had to bracket two, three, or even four people as joint or co-equal ministers whose advice the King took and who therefore controlled the governance of the country.

The first Act of Parliament to mention the office of Prime Minister was the Chequers Estate Act, which received the Royal Assent on December 20, 1917. It dealt with the gift to the Crown of the Chequers Estate by Sir Arthur and Lady Lee, for use as a country home for future Prime Ministers.

Finally, the Ministers of the Crown Act, which received the Royal Assent on July 1, 1937, gave an official recognition to the position of Prime Minister and made provision for paying "the First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister" - the two offices that since the 18th century, have usually been held by the Prime Minister:

To give statutory recognition to the existence of the position of Prime Minister, and to the historic link between the Premiership and the office of First Lord of the Treasury, by providing in respect to that position and office a salary of...

The Act made a certain distinction between "position" (Prime Minister) and "office" (First Lord of the Treasury) emphasizing the unique character of the position and recognized the existence of the Cabinet. Nevertheless, in spite of this recognition, the brass plate outside the Prime Minister's front door still bears the title of First Lord of the Treasury.

The lack of official recognition for the position of Prime Minister causes problems when trying to positively identify prime ministers in the British history. Thus, every list of British Prime ministers may omit certain politicians depending on the criteria selected by a researcher. For instance, unsuccessful attempts to form ministries, such as that of Lord Granville in 1746, or the summons of the sovereign to ministers who refused to form a ministry are often ignored.

The origins of modern term Prime Minister date back to the time after the Glorious Revolution (1688), when Parliament's power began to steadily grow at the expense of that of the monarch. It was under William III and his successor, Anne, that the Cabinet began to take its modern shape. Individuals such as Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin and Robert Harley were recognised as the leaders of their respective ministries, but they cannot be considered Prime Ministers in the modern sense, given that they exercised little control over their colleagues. Similarly, the Cabinets of Anne's successor, George I, were led by individuals such as Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, James Stanhope, 1st Earl Stanhope, and Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, but these individuals were not truly Prime Ministers.

Sir Robert Walpole is normally considered to be Great Britain's first Prime Minister.
Sir Robert Walpole is normally considered to be Great Britain's first Prime Minister.

Lord Stanhope and Lord Sunderland, who were joint leaders of their Cabinet, were succeeded in 1721 by Sir Robert Walpole, who held the influential office of First Lord of the Treasury. Previous holders of the post had often been important figures in government, but not to such a degree as Walpole. His influence grew even stronger because the King, George I, was not active in English politics, preferring to concentrate on his native Hanover. Walpole is generally regarded as the first Prime Minister, not just because of his influence in Government, but because he could force his colleagues in the Cabinet to act in a harmonious and unified fashion, instead of intriguing against each other for more power. Walpole's office, First Lord of the Treasury, became strongly associated with the leadership of the Government; it became the position which the Prime Minister almost always held.

Though Walpole was the nation's first "Prime Minister," these words were used as a term of reproach toward him. His tenure was not as important in terms of constitutional development as some have imagined. His term and power were primarily based on the favour of the Crown, rather than the support of the House of Commons. His immediate successors were not nearly as powerful as he; the influence of the Crown continued to remain paramount. Still, the powers of the monarch were slowly diminished, and those of the Prime Minister gradually increased, over the course of the following years. Indeed, during the last years of George II's life, policy was chiefly directed by Ministers such as William Pitt the Elder.

The reign of George III, which began in 1760 upon the death of George II, is particularly notable for developments in the office of Prime Minister. Over the course of his reign, the King was sometimes forced by parliamentary pressure to appoint Prime Ministers and Ministers whom he did not personally favour. Control over the composition of the Cabinet had not, however, been completely lost by the King; in some cases, George was able to prevent the appointment of politicians whom he detested (for instance, Charles James Fox). The influence of the monarch nevertheless continued to gradually dwindle; this trend became clearly noticeable during the reign of William IV, the last King to appoint a Prime Minister against the wishes of Parliament. William attempted to impose his personal will in 1834, when he dismissed William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (whose Whig administration he disliked) and replaced him with a Tory, Sir Robert Peel. Peel, however, found it impossible to govern without the support of the Whig House of Commons, and was forced to resign from his position. Since Peel's administration, the Sovereign has had very little discretion in appointing Prime Ministers; no monarch since William IV has attempted to appoint a Prime Minister against the wishes of Parliament.

As the royal influence over ministerial appointments disappeared, the power of the House of Commons began to rise, its political superiority over the House of Lords being established by the Parliament Act 1911. During the early twentieth century, the convention that the Prime Minister should be responsible not to the Lords, but to the Commons, was formed. The associated convention that the Prime Minister should be a member of the Lower House was developed. The last Prime Minister to lead his whole administration from the Lords was Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, from 1895 to 1902. Mention, however, must be made of the appointment of Alec Douglas-Home, 14th Earl of Home in 1963. Lord Home was the last Prime Minister who was a peer, but, within days of attaining office, he disclaimed his peerage, mindful of the convention that the Prime Minister should sit in the House of Commons. A junior member of his Conservative Party who had been selected as candidate in a by-election in a staunch Conservative seat stood aside, allowing Douglas-Home to contest the by-election and procure a seat in the lower House.

The Office

Although in recent years it has never hindered any premier in the exercise of his or her office, the official status of the Prime Minister remains somewhat ambiguous. A Prime Minister has virtually no statutory authority in his or her own right; all the actual business of running the country and spending the budget is (in theory) carried out by the holders of more explicitly defined Cabinet offices, who are empowered to do so by various Acts of Parliament. The Prime Minister holds at least one of these more tangible ministerial offices himself—normally First Lord of the Treasury—and indeed receives his or her salary and public accommodation only by virtue of that office.

The title "Prime Minister", however, is not altogether a matter of convention, as in 1905 it was in a sense given official recognition when the "Prime Minister" was named in the "order of precedence," outranked, among non-royals, only by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and by the Lord Chancellor. The first prime minister in this sense was therefore Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Furthermore, the office is not entirely without statutory justification, since it has in fact been explicitly named a number of times in emergency wartime legislation. All sorts of official pronouncements are issued from Downing Street in the name of the "Prime Minister" without further circumlocution.

By convention, the Prime Minister also holds the office of First Lord of the Treasury. The only Prime Ministers who have not also served as First Lord for a significant part of their administrations are William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham (who was Lord Privy Seal) and, for most of his three premierships, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (who was either Foreign Secretary or Lord Privy Seal except for the first few months of his second premiership when he was First Lord). Since Lord Salisbury's retirement in 1902, every Prime Minister has also been First Lord of the Treasury. Some have held yet more offices; for example, Tony Blair is both First Lord and Minister for the Civil Service.

There is also the associated post of Deputy Prime Minister. An officer with such a title need not always exist; rather, the existence of the post is dependent on the form of Cabinet organisation preferred by the Prime Minister and his or her party. The office's title, however, may be considered something of a misnomer; the Deputy Prime Minister does not automatically succeed when a vacancy in the premiership is suddenly created, nor does he or she assume any additional powers when the Prime Minister is outside the country. He may, however, be expected to stand in for the Prime Minister on occasion, for example by taking the dispatch box at Prime Minister's Question Time when the Prime Minister is unable to attend. This occurs with varying frequency—usually only important international negotiations prevent the Prime Minister from taking Questions when the House is in session. The position has often been used honorifically. Under the Blair Government, a separate department called the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was created in 2002. The present Deputy Prime Minister is John Prescott, who was previously Secretary of State for Transport, Environment and the Regions. The previous holder of the post was Michael Heseltine, who was appointed in the John Major government after the post had briefly fallen into desuetude.

In the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the position which corresponds with that of Prime Minister is First Minister. (See First Minister of Scotland, First Minister of Wales, and First Minister of Northern Ireland.)


The office of Prime Minister is governed not by codified laws, but by unwritten and to some extent fluid customs known as constitutional conventions, which have developed over years of British history. These conventions are for the most part founded on the underlying principle that the Prime Minister and his fellow Ministers must maintain the support of the democratically elected component of Parliament, the House of Commons. The Sovereign, as a constitutional monarch, always acts in accordance with such conventions, as do Prime Ministers themselves.

Whenever the office of Prime Minister falls vacant, the Sovereign is responsible for appointing the new incumbent; the appointment is formalised at a ceremony known as Kissing Hands. In accordance with unwritten constitutional conventions, the Sovereign must appoint the individual most likely to maintain the support of the House of Commons: usually, the leader of the party which has a majority in that House. If no party has a majority (an unlikely occurrence given the United Kingdom's First Past the Post electoral system), two or more groups may form a coalition, whose agreed leader is then appointed Prime Minister. The majority party becomes "Her Majesty's Government," and the next largest party becomes "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition." The head of the largest Opposition party becomes the Leader of the Opposition.

Margaret Thatcher is the only woman who has served as Prime Minister, holding the office from 1979 to 1990.
Margaret Thatcher is the only woman who has served as Prime Minister, holding the office from 1979 to 1990.

The term of a Prime Minister is linked to the term of Members of the House of Commons. Parliament has a maximum term of five years; in practice, however, it is usually "dissolved" sooner by the Sovereign, acting on a request from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister normally chooses the moment most advantageous to his or her party for the dissolution. In some circumstances, however, the Prime Minister may be compelled to dissolve Parliament (or, if he or she prefers, to resign) by the House of Commons. The House may attempt to force the dissolution by passing a Motion of No Confidence or by rejecting a Motion of Confidence. The same effect is achieved if the House of Commons rejects the Budget ("withdraws Supply"), or if it rejects some other important component of the Government's agenda. Such defeats for the Government, however, are rare; there have only been three defeats on confidence issues since the nineteenth century: twice in 1924, and once in 1979. The first in 1924 took place immediately after an inconclusive election result and led to an immediate change of government, but in the other two cases a general election was called (and in both the incumbent government was defeated).

Whatever the reason—the expiry of Parliament's five year term, the choice of the Prime Minister, or a Government defeat in the House of Commons—the dissolution is followed by general elections. If his or her party has lost a majority in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is compelled to resign (or request a dissolution, but the Sovereign is not compelled to accept such a request). The leader of the party or coalition now in the majority is then appointed Prime Minister by the Sovereign. The custom that requires the Prime Minister to resign immediately after an electoral loss was last broken by Edward Heath after the general election of February 1974, which did not produce an absolute majority for any party. Heath opted not to resign immediately, instead negotiating with a third party (the Liberal Party) to form a coalition. Heath did eventually resign when the negotiations failed.

Lastly, defeats in general elections are not the only events which end Prime Ministerial terms. For example, Margaret Thatcher left office because she no longer retained the support of her own party. Prime Ministers are also free to resign for personal reasons (such as health concerns). The last Prime Minister to die in office was Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (in 1865). The only Prime Minister to be assassinated was Spencer Perceval (in 1812).

Powers and restraints

The Prime Minister's chief duty is to "form a Government"—that is to say, to create a Cabinet or Ministry which will sustain the support of the House of Commons—when commissioned by the Sovereign. He or she generally co-ordinates the policies and activities of the Cabinet and the various Government departments, acting as the "face" of Her Majesty's Government. The Sovereign exercises much of his or her royal prerogative on the Prime Minister's advice. (For the prerogative of dissolving Parliament, see "Term" above.)

The Prime Minister also has a wide range of powers of appointment. In most cases, the actual appointments are made by the Sovereign, but the selection and recommendation is made by the Prime Minister. Ministers, Privy Counsellors, Ambassadors and High Commissioners, senior civil servants, senior military officers, members of important committees and commissions, and several other officials are selected, and in some cases may be removed, by the Prime Minister. Furthermore, peerages, knighthoods, and other honours are bestowed by the Sovereign only on the advice of the Prime Minister. He also formally advises the Sovereign on the appointment of Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England, but his discretion is limited by the existence of the Crown Nominations Commission. The appointment of senior judges, while on the advice of the Prime Minister for constitutional reasons, is now on the basis of recommendations from independent bodies. The only important British honours over which the Prime Minister does not have control are the Orders of the Garter, Thistle, and Merit, and the Royal Victorian Order, which are all within the "personal gift" of the Sovereign. The extent of the Sovereign's ability to influence the nature of the Prime Ministerial advice is unknown, but probably varies depending upon the personal relationship between the Sovereign and the Prime Minister of the day.

David Lloyd George, who served from 1916 to 1922, is often cited as an example of a strong Prime Minister.
David Lloyd George, who served from 1916 to 1922, is often cited as an example of a strong Prime Minister.

There exist several limits on the powers of the Prime Minister. Firstly, he or she is (theoretically at least) only a first among equals in the Cabinet. The extent of a Prime Minister's power over the Cabinet may vary. In some cases, the Prime Minister may be a mere figurehead, with actual power being wielded by one or more other individuals. Weak or titular Prime Ministers were more common prior to the twentieth century; examples include William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire and William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland. At the opposite extreme, however, Prime Ministers may dominate the Cabinet so much that they become "Semi-Presidents." Examples of dominant Prime Ministers (more common during the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries) include William Ewart Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Sir Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher (who was powerful enough as to be able to organise her cabinet without regard to Parliamentary conventions), and Tony Blair. Some Prime Ministers go from one position to the other: Ramsay MacDonald, for example, was dominant in his Labour governments, but during his National Government his powers diminished so that by his final years in Downing Street he was merely the figurehead of the government. In modern times, Prime Ministers are never merely titular; dominant or somewhat dominant personalities are the norm.

The Prime Minister's powers are also limited by the House of Commons, whose support the Government is obliged to maintain. The House of Commons checks the powers of the Prime Minister through committee hearings and through Question Time, a weekly occurrence in which the Prime Minister is obliged to respond to the questions of the Leader of the Opposition and other members of the House. In practice, however, a Government with a strong majority need rarely fear "backbench rebellions." Members of Parliament may hold ministerial offices (by convention up to 90 offices, or varying levels of seniority, exist), and may fear removal for failing to support the Prime Minister. Party discipline, furthermore, is very strong; a Member of Parliament may be expelled from his or her party for failing to support the Government on important issues, and although this will not mean he or she must resign as an MP, it would make re-election difficult for most. Restraints imposed by the House of Commons grow even weaker when the Government's party enjoys a large majority in that House. In general, the Prime Minister and his or her colleagues may secure the House's support for almost any bill.

The House of Lords is less restrictive of the Prime Minister's power. Under the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords normally does not seek to oppose any measure promised by the Government in its election manifesto. When the House of Lords does oppose the Prime Minister, it is generally ineffectual in defeating entire Bills (though almost all Bills are successfully modified by the Upper House during their passage through Parliament). Peers (members of the House of Lords) are created by the Sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister; by obtaining the creation of several new peers, the Prime Minister may flood the House of Lords with individuals supportive of his position. The threat of such a tactic was used in 1911 to ensure the passage of the Parliament Act 1911, which, together with the Parliament Act 1949, reduces the House of Lords's powers and establishes the supremacy of the Commons (in particular, the House of Lords can only delay, but not reject, most bills on which the Commons insist). The 1949 Parliament Act is, however, the subject of a current legal challenge as to its efficacy.

The role and power of the Prime Minister have been subject to much change in the last fifty years. There has gradually been a change from Cabinet decision making and deliberation to the dominance of the Prime Minister. As early as 1965, in a new introduction to Walter Bagehot's classic work The English Constitution, Richard Crossman identified a new era of "Prime Ministerial" government. Some commentators, such as the political scientist Michael Foley have argued there is a de facto "British Presidency". In Tony Blair's government many sources such as former ministers have suggested that decision making is centered around him and Gordon Brown, and Cabinet is not longer used for decision making [1]. Former ministers such as Clare Short and Chris Smith have talked of the total lack of decision making in cabinet. On her resignation, Short denounced "the centralisation of power into the hands of the Prime Minister and an increasingly small number of advisers"[2]. The Butler Review of 2004 condemned Blair's style of "sofa government".

Ultimately, however, the Prime Minister may be held responsible for the consequences of legislation or of general government policy. Margaret Thatcher's party forced her from power after the introduction of the poll tax; Sir Anthony Eden fell from power following the Suez Crisis; Neville Chamberlain resigned after being criticised for his handling of negotiations with Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II.

Precedence and privileges

The main door to 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's residence.
The main door to 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's residence.

The Prime Minister had no special precedence until the order of precedence first recognized the office in 1905. Throughout the United Kingdom, he outranks all others except the Royal Family, the Lord Chancellor, and senior ecclesiastical functionaries (in England and Wales, the Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York; in Scotland, the Lord High Commissioner and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; in Northern Ireland, the Anglican and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church).

The Prime Minister draws his or her salary not as Prime Minister, but as First Lord of the Treasury. At present, he or she receives £121,437, in addition to his or her salary as a Member of Parliament (£57,485). Although the Prime Minister is undoubtedly the most powerful figure in British government, his or her compensation is not the highest amongst ministers: that distinction goes to the Lord Chancellor.

The Prime Minister traditionally resides at 10 Downing Street in London, which George II offered to Sir Robert Walpole as a personal gift. Walpole, however, only accepted it as the official home of the First Lord, taking up his residence there in 1735. One may note that the Prime Minister only resides in 10 Downing Street in his or her capacity as First Lord; the few nineteenth century Prime Ministers who were not First Lords were forced to live elsewhere. Though most First Lords have lived in 10 Downing Street, some have preferred to reside in their private residences. Furthermore, some such as Harold Macmillan and John Major have lived in Admiralty House whilst 10 Downing Street was undergoing renovations or repairs.

Adjacent to Downing Street is 11 Downing Street, the home of the Second Lord of the Treasury (who, in modern times, has also filled the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer). After he became Prime Minister in 1997, Tony Blair found 10 Downing Street too meagre for his large family, and he swapped residences with the Chancellor and Second Lord, Gordon Brown. However, the Prime Ministerial offices are still maintained in Number 10. 12 Downing Street is the residence of the Chief Whip, and these are the only three residences remaining in the road.

The Prime Minister is also entitled to use the country house of Chequers in Buckinghamshire.

The Prime Minister, like other Cabinet Ministers and senior Members of Parliament, is customarily a member of the Privy Council; thus, he or she becomes entitled to prefix "The Right Honourable" to his or her name. Membership of the Council is retained for life (unless the individual resigns it, or is expelled—both rare phenomena). It is a constitutional convention that only a Privy Counsellor can be appointed Prime Minister, but invariably all potential candidates have already attained this status. The only occasion when a non-Privy Councillor was the natural appointment was Ramsay MacDonald in 1924, but the issue was resolved by appointing him to the Council immediately prior to his appointment as Prime Minister.

Retirement honours

For his leadership during the Second World War, Winston Churchill was offered a dukedom at the end of his premiership in 1945. He declined, but did become a Knight of the Garter. (He once again became Prime Minister in 1951.)
For his leadership during the Second World War, Winston Churchill was offered a dukedom at the end of his premiership in 1945. He declined, but did become a Knight of the Garter. (He once again became Prime Minister in 1951.)

It is customary for the Sovereign to grant a Prime Minister some honour or dignity when that individual retires from politics. The honour commonly, but not invariably, bestowed on Prime Ministers is membership of the United Kingdom's most senior order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter. The practice of creating retired Prime Ministers Knights of the Garter has been fairly prevalent since the middle-nineteenth century.

It has also been common for Prime Ministers to be granted peerages upon their retirement from the premiership. (The grant of a peerage, which elevates the individual to the House of Lords, may be delayed if the Prime Minister wishes to stay in the House of Commons for some more time.) Formerly, the peerage bestowed was usually an earldom (which was always hereditary). However, since the 1960s, hereditary peerages have generally been eschewed, and life peerages have been preferred. The granting of hereditary peerages was briefly renewed during the 1980s, when former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was created Earl of Stockton, but has not since been continued (neither Margaret Thatcher nor John Major accepted hereditary peerages, although Margaret Thatcher holds the non-hereditary title of Baroness Thatcher).

Of the eighteen Prime Ministers since 1902 (excluding the current holder of the office), eight have been created both peers and Knights of the Garter; three have only been created peers; three have only become Knights of the Garter; and four have not been granted either honour—in two cases due to their death while still active in politics, in two others out of a wish to die a commoner.

The retired Prime Ministers who are still living are:

In November 2004, the polling company MORI in association with the University of Leeds questioned 258 political science academics in the United Kingdom (139 of whom replied) on the perceived success of twentieth century Prime Ministers. The results showed that Clement Attlee was rated as most successful, followed by Churchill and Lloyd George. Anthony Eden was rated as the least successful.

List of Prime Ministers

Tony Blair is the current Prime Minister.
Tony Blair is the current Prime Minister.

For the complete list of British Prime Ministers, see List of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom.

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, John Carteret, 2nd Baron 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 First Lord of the Treasury. This list follows conventional practice in not listing such figures as Prime Ministers.

There are, however, two exceptions to this generalisation. Firstly, in 1766, William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham (previously William Pitt the Elder) was asked by the King to form a ministry, but chose to take the office of Lord Privy Seal instead of the position of First Lord. Nevertheless, he is generally considered to have served as Prime Minister, for the King had asked him to form a Government. Similarly, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, was asked to form ministries thrice, though he only served as First Lord for a short part of his second term. Lord Salisbury is also listed as a Prime Minister, though he was not First Lord, again because the Queen had asked him to form the 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.

See also


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