"Who would be prime minister?" seems to be a bone-of-contention at present, were an alternative government to be formed within the present house.

As I understand it, the phrase "prime minister" was originally somewhat of an insult, suggesting that one government minister had ideas above their station of collective cabinet responsibility. Though this may have later changed into a codified office?

However, there is also the office of "First Lord of The Treasury" which seems to have been long synonymous with the Prime Minister, and may actually be the office to which many apparently prime ministerial functions attach. There are also institutions such as "Prime Minister's Question Time" which might be tricky were there no nominated Prime Minister.

Ignoring for a moment if any of the current characters would be willing to share such an office or to leave it vacant, are there major barriers to the functioning of parliament or government, with these roles unfilled.

To be clear, I'm asking for clarity on which titles traditionally afforded to the person we call Prime Minister are offices, carry responsibilities, and functions, etc, and the extent to which were such leadership offices vacant (or shared on various bases) a government could function from a constitutional standpoint.

  • Are you just talking about the literal title of "Prime Minister", ie the leader of government would call themselves "First Lord of The Treasury" not PM, but it would otherwise be the same? Or are you asking about a government without a single specific leader?
    – divibisan
    Sep 27, 2019 at 16:15
  • I'm asking for clarity on which titles traditionally afforded to the person we call Prime Minister are offices, carry responsibilities, and functions, etc, and the extent to which were such offices vacant a government could function from a constitutional standpoint. Do you think I should clarify the question to make that clear?
    – Dannie
    Sep 27, 2019 at 16:20

1 Answer 1


The modern government of the United Kingdom is a government by a cabinet of ministers, which is chaired by a Prime Minister.

The Constitution of the UK is unwritten (or at least, undocumented); the position of "Prime Minister" is one of those positions which is not defined by a written constitution, nevertheless, it has a clearly defined role. The modern constitution expects a Prime Minister to be appointed. And Government could not continue unchanged if no Prime Minister were appointed.

There are various titles conventionally associated with "Prime Minister". These include "First Lord of the Treasury". These are significant, in that there is a pay scale implied by these roles. Though it is has been notable that the Lord Chancellor (normally the Secretary of State for Justice) outranks the First Lord of the Treasury in pay and noble order. Robert Buckland would be announced before Boris Johnson at a State dinner, as he technically outranks him.

These positions are relevant in terms of ranking in at state dinner, but not for the actual running of the country. In that, the unofficial position of Prime Minister is the highest power in the country, and the constitution expects a Prime Minister to be appointed to chair cabinet meetings and appoint members of the cabinet. The flexibility of an unwritten constitution means that the position of "Prime Minister" can be completely defined by the job that they do.

  • +1. Will give some time before the tick, though. Just out of interest if Prime Minister is defined by the job they do does that mean someone could be found to be Prime Minister against their will? If some artificial arrangement were made in that someone was announced as Prime Minister but (due to some underhand deal) someone else did all things Prime Ministereal could a court decide that this person was actually Prime Minister against their will? Only a comment because the question seems kinda daft, but these are odd times: a Prime Minister goading the opposition to have no confidence in him!
    – Dannie
    Sep 27, 2019 at 21:56
  • 1
    That would indeed be odd. The "prime ministerial things" include some pretty public activities, such as answering questions to the PM in parliament, representing HM government at international events and so on. I suppose a PM might grow ill and ask a deputy to do all these things, but I can't see why a court would need to decide on this. Remember, we have government by cabinet, not by a Prime Minister.
    – James K
    Sep 27, 2019 at 22:22
  • I suppose there could be a Konstantin Chernenko type situation where the prime minister is gravely ill and not seen for some considerable time, and there be persistent rumours of their death, denied by the cabinet (maybe a hero ex-soldier who is politically unassailable). After, say, a year in this position, it could be that someone (from an oposition party?) moves to declare their long-standing deputy as Prime Minister which they deny. But I'm just shooting the breeze now. Thanks for your interesting comments!
    – Dannie
    Sep 27, 2019 at 23:27
  • I'm not so sure. Given it is uncodified, couldn't the monarch technically act as the head of government as the leader of a cabinet of ministers?
    – gktscrk
    Jul 9, 2020 at 13:49
  • No, the Prime Minister chairs meetings of the Cabinet. The monarch is not permitted to do so by tradition and convention. As soon as you say "technically" you are forgetting the spirit of the Constitution. There is no "technically" because it isn't written down.
    – James K
    Jul 9, 2020 at 19:20

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