6

Let's say a party wins a majority in Parliament, but chooses a PM who's universally Unpopular with a capital "U" - as in, would lose a popularity vote with even many members of majority party voting against.

Is there a legal/practical way for UK Parliament to reject such an unpopular Prime Minister, even if the internal workings of majority party selected them?

9

Formally it is the queen who appoints ministers. The Queen, however, only acts on the advice of her ministers.

So a party has gained a majority despite its leader being universally unpopular (unlikely). The beaten party leader is still Prime Minister, but seeing that her opponents command a majority in the House, she resigns. Her last act as PM is to recommend to the Queen who to appoint as her successor.

By convention, she recommends the Leader of the party with the largest number of seats. In this case, she must recommend the unpopular majority leader.

The majority leader then attempts to form a government. Since the leader commands a majority in the House of Commons, this should not be a problem.

Parliament can remove a government by passing a motion of no-confidence. If the PM were unpopular enough that many members of the majority party were to vote for the no-confidence motion, then the government would be forced to resign. Voting against your leader like this is effectively resigning from your party. These MPs would no longer be members of the majority party. They could become independent, or they could join an opposition party. (One Tory who abstained in the 1993 confidence motion was immediately suspended from the party)

Under the terms of the "Fixed term parliaments act" there would then be a period of 2 weeks in which other parties may try to form a government. The old PM could try to form a government. She could try to gain the support of those MPs who voted against the unpopular PM. If she can win a confidence motion then she becomes PM again. If not then Parliament is dissolved, and a general election is held.

This wouldn't happen.

Instead, if a PM is seen to be very unpopular, then each party has internal mechanisms to remove that person from the leadership of the party. Any other from the Majority party can stand against the PM in a leadership contest. If the PM is unpopular enough and loses the leadership contest they must (by convention) resign as PM and nominate the new leader as their successor.

In 1990, Margaret Thatcher was unpopular. A former Minister, Heseltine challenged her for the Leadership of the Party. Thatcher won the internal party vote, but not by enough to prevent a second round of voting. That night senior members of the Conservative Party visited her to tell her that she could no longer depend on a majority of the parliamentary party to support her and she resigned as leader of the Conservative party. There then followed a leadership election, that was won by John Major. He became PM.

Corbyn is very unusual, in that he has much more support among the rank-and-file of the Labour party than among the parliamentary party.

5

Who gets to go first?

The question of who gets to try to form a Government first after an election is not completely clear.1 Parliamentary conventions, using the 2010 Cabinet Manual, state

  1. The question of who has the first opportunity to form a government is subject to differing views. The traditional position is that "the constitutional conventions on government formation (including in situations of a hung Parliament) were and are, firstly, that the incumbent Prime Minister has the first opportunity to continue in office and form an administration".

  2. The draft Cabinet Manual chapter states that "An incumbent Government is entitled to await the meeting of the new Parliament to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons". The December 2010 Cabinet Manual adds the phrase "but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative".

If this is followed, then after an election, a Government can, if it wants, attempt to see if it can retain confidence in the Commons. If it cannot, it is expected to resign if another group can form a Government. Therefore, it would seem that whoever had a Government before the election - whether it be this majority party or another party, now with a minority - could get a crack at forming a Government. If not, someone else will take a turn.

The reason this is important here is that if this majority party cannot gain confidence, then there's no reason for the incumbent Government - if they are now a minority - to step down just yet if they still have reasonable support. It seems likely that they would want a shot at this, since there's no point in giving up control if nobody else can take it yet.

Maybe they'll gain confidence. However, it's more likely that they won't, and then we have a situation a little reminiscent of a hung Parliament. Some believe that the party with the most votes should get a first chance, in which case this now-majority party would definitely try first, even if it did not previously have a majority. If it was not successful, then again, we would see other groups try.

I can see two things happening:

  1. The majority party forms a coalition with another party - not to gain a majority (they already have that), but to attempt to gain confidence in Parliament. It's possible that the head of this second party could become Prime Minister. This would allow the majority party some control; it might be a better alternative to not having a Government.
  2. A party attempts to form a minority government. This is actually quite possible. Again, if the incumbent Government is a minority, they may try this.
  3. Someone other than the party leader could attempt to head the Government, if the party were to somehow agree to this. (This answer noted that the Queen does have a say in things; this linked document says that in the case of a hung Parliament, the Queen could meet with party leaders to discuss a coalition or a non-leader becoming a Prime Minister.)

These do have chances of succeeding. The chances aren't great, but they're chances nonetheless.

If someone goes to the Queen with a majority of confidence, then she will almost surely assent. If not, then there will likely be more talks until some agreement is made. The Government will then attempt to pass the Queen's Speech. If it fails, it may have to resign, and a new Government would try to form.

The upshot of all this is that if the party cannot form a Government, then we have a situation where anyone can try to form one. Parliament can reject a Prime Minister so unpopular that he or she would prevent a party from taking power simply by virtue of the fact that he or she could never form a Government.

In the meantime

By the way, while a new Government is being formed, whoever is currently in power will remain in power (unless they have lost their seat) - and in fact, the incumbent Prime Minister may be expected to stay on until a new one can be found. The Manual states

The incumbent Prime Minister is not expected to resign until it is clear that there is someone else who should be asked to form a government because they are better placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons and that information has been communicated to the Sovereign


1 This is the accepted convention, but some say that the party with the most votes should get the first chance. In the scenario you've devised, this would all be put to a test. Nobody really has a good shot here.

-4

The UK parliament has to vote who becomes prime minister in the first place. So your question isn't really about majority, but about the people who voted for the PM changing their mind.

As long as the majority of MPs would vote for the Prime Minister, very little can be done except criminal charges or unfortunate accidents. But if the majority wants to get rid of the PM, that's no problem. All that is required is a vote of no confidence.

  • 1
    Parliament does NOT have any vote on the choice of PM. The closets it has is a vote on the Queen's Speech, i.e. The government's legislative programme. – Steve Melnikoff Jun 10 '17 at 7:16

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