Time to elect the Prime Minister?

A new parliamentary report proposes the direct election of the Prime Minister and a clarification of his or her powers in statute. The Chair of the Committee that produced the report explains why.

Graham Allen
1 July 2014

Flickr/Maurice. Some rights reserved.

There is a crisis of legitimacy in our democracy. Parties fearful of standing for ideas, relentless media denigration of conventional politics making it uncool to vote for any of them, the rise of anti-politics as a voting option, failure to devolve effectively to use the talents of all the nations of the Union or to liberate independent local government, and national political institutions and Whitehall not fit for purpose. All  place our democracy at greater risk than at any point in our lifetime.

Yet in our grossly over centralised politics all our hopes for change rest with its main beneficiary, the Prime Minister, the central and dominant political figure in the United Kingdom. He is the head of the Executive, the holder of the highest political office in the land and controls the agenda of the very institution—Parliament—that is meant to hold him to account. Yet like the monarch who lost his head, Charles I, he is neither directly elected by the people nor are his enormous powers legitimised in statute or constrained by a democratic separation of powers. Why would such an officeholder be interested in democratising such overweening power?

Many people may be surprised to discover that most of the powers exercised by the Prime Minister are not defined in statute and cannot be found in one place: they evolved rather than being consciously created. It is impossible to point to a single moment in history when the post came into being. Sir Robert Walpole, who became First Lord of the Treasury—a post which is now traditionally held by the Prime Minister—in 1721, is often thought of as the first Prime Minister. However, formal acknowledgement of the post’s existence was a lengthy process. The first mention of the Prime Minister in statute came with the Chequers Estate Act 1917. The Cabinet Manual, finally published in October 2011 after pressure from my Select Committee, contains the most comprehensive official account to date of the Prime Minister’s role and powers, but it is aimed at Ministers and civil servants rather than the public, and it has no statutory force.  

The number of functions performed by the Prime Minister has increased in recent decades, including an increased role in policy making, driven by the development of 24-hour mass media, the increased importance of international bodies, and the lack of statutory constraints on Executive power.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which I chair, has just concluded an inquiry into whether there needs to be more clarity about the Prime Minister’s role and powers, and whether the checks and balances on those powers are sufficient. Our report was published on 24 June and is available on our website

The Prime Minister’s enormous armoury  includes so called prerogative powers: enormous unregulated powers which are exercised by the Prime Minister on behalf of the monarch. There is no agreed definition of what constitutes a prerogative power and no definitive list of the powers. Even the previous government’s own review of prerogative powers stated: “The scope of the royal prerogative power is notoriously difficult to determine.” The fact that the powers are not defined means that they are hard to scrutinise effectively. 

Some prerogative powers have already been placed on a statutory footing proving it can be done. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 introduced a new statutory basis for the management of the civil service, and a new parliamentary process for the ratification of treaties. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 abolished the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament. This, as Professor Robert Hazell pointed out in evidence to our inquiry, is a significant surrender of Prime Ministerial power.

But it does not go far enough. The Prime Minister must of course have powers to act in an emergency but there is no reason why these powers too can’t be clear in law. The process of transferring more prerogative powers to statute and making them subject to greater parliamentary oversight must continue. The Committee recently published four reports about the Prime Minister’s prerogative power to commit armed forces to conflict abroad. The report included a parliamentary resolution, to clarify the role of parliament in conflict decisions. I see this as an interim step to enshrining in law the need for the Prime Minister to consult before or after the event the House of Commons on the use of armed force abroad. I call again on the government to respond positively to this constructive proposal for placing one more Prime Ministerial power on a formal footing.

The Prime Minister’s role and powers as a whole, as opposed to individual prerogative powers, should be codified in statute. The UK is the odd one out in failing to define the role of the Chief Executive. International examples, and the examples of the First Ministers in the devolved administrations, demonstrate that setting out the basic structure of how the Prime Minister is appointed, and his or her broad functions, is achievable. In 2001, I drew up a Private Member’s Bill that did just that. A modified version of the Bill was included in the report, as an example of what could be done.

The Committee also looked at the Prime Minister’s accountability to Parliament and to the public. Prime Minister’s Questions for many shows parliament and politics at its worst, not just rowdy and immature but failing to have proper exchange or accountability, and short on outcomes and follow through. We concluded that the Liaison Committee—which is made up of the chairs of 33 House of Commons Select Committees and holds regular oral evidence sessions with the Prime Minister—has the potential to be a serious mechanism to hold the Prime Minster to account. I hope that it continues its attempts to improve its way of working by limiting the number of questioners and topics to enable the sessions to be more professional and relentless.

Not only do the people not directly elect the Prime Minister, his appointment is not even ratified by those who are elected. There is no formal process by which the House of Commons directly endorses the Prime Minister after a general election. Our report asked the government to consider whether there should be. We requested the government to consider the possibility of a ratification or “investiture” vote for the Prime Minister before he goes to the Queen. In my view, such a vote would result in a clearer line of accountability and would make it explicit that the Prime Minister commands the confidence of the majority of the House of Commons. After a general election, the Prime Minister Designate would be able to perform all the main functions including appointing ministers and instructing civil servants, but would not take the post of Prime Minister until he or she had been confirmed in the post by a vote of the House of Commons and subsequently appointed to the post by the monarch.

We also considered whether the Prime Minister should be directly elected by the people of the United Kingdom. My personal view is that this would considerably increase accountability and lead to a much clearer separation of powers. While acknowledging that the Prime Minister was unlikely to be directly elected in the near future, our report asked the Government to engage with this concept—commonplace in most democracies—and put its view on the record. 

It is in everyone’s interests, including the Prime Minister’s, for the Office to be one of a plurality of legitimate independent political institutions with effective checks and balances and accountability mechanisms. Ultimately, this will lead to widely supported political institutions working together in partnership. And that must be good for everyone in the United Kingdom including a legitimate Prime Minister. 


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