I am interested in the possibility of a party being elected into Westminster in a UK General election, with the party leader failing to be elected in his or her constituency.

  1. If the party in question wins a majority (so that the unelected leader would ordinarily become PM), is there any protocol that determines how a Prime Minister would be chosen under these circumstances?
  2. Did the situation in 1. ever actually happen?
  3. Is there any constitutional or legal mechanism that safeguards against a party leader who is not an elected member of parliament 'calling the shots' from outwith parliament? (n.b. this seems similar to the current state of affairs with the SNP, who are essentially taking orders from the unelected Nicola Sturgeon).
  • 5
    My understanding is that Sturgeon is elected, just not to Westminster.
    – cpast
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 17:39
  • @cpast Quite. Francois Hollande is also elected. It doesn't mean he has any place setting the policy agenda in London.
    – Ubiquitous
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 19:46
  • 1
    @Ubiquitous I am afraid your objection comes under much the same category as wishing there was a law against liars and cheats going into politics :) Politics isn't like that.
    – Simd
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 19:50
  • Related possible duplicate politics.stackexchange.com/questions/19855/… Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 13:57

3 Answers 3


It is in fact quite possible to have unelected people in the government. Members of the House of Lords for example, fairly commonly appear in the cabinet. So the answer is, no to part 3.

With respect to part 1, the answer is the Queen chooses the prime minister and has total freedom to do so. However, see this

In appointing a Prime Minister, the Sovereign is guided by constitutional conventions. The main requirement is to find someone who can command the confidence of the House of Commons.

I believe Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was prime minister while a member of the House of Lords.

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    The current precedent (established by Alec Douglas-Home) is the PM must be a member of the commons. 4 days after becoming PM, Lord Home resigned his peerage, and stood in a by election. Technically Home, was PM while not a member of parliament between the time he resigned his peerage and when he was elected as an MP.
    – James K
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 17:14
  • @JamesK When you say the precedent was established by Douglas-Home, what record/evidence of this is there? What I mean is, how does one establish such a precedent in practice?
    – Simd
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 17:17
  • 1
    I mean, it was clearly unacceptable in 1963 for a Lord to be PM. The expectation is the the PM is available to answer questions in the Commons. Since the whole post is only based on tradition, the fact the Home didn't remain a Lord indicates that a Prime Minister in the Lords is unacceptable.
    – James K
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 17:22
  • @JamesK I see your point. Lacking other evidence, I think it only shows that it was unacceptable at that point.
    – Simd
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 17:23
  • Agreed, the Queen appoints a PM on the advice of her ministers. She can appoint a Lord (she can appoint anyone). Recent history suggests she won't.
    – James K
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 17:35

There is a precedent in a UK-style electoral system: In the 1989 provincial election in Alberta, Canada, the Progressive Conservative party won a majority while its leader, Don Getty, lost his own seat.

The matter was resolved by persuading a Progressive Conservative member in a safe seat to resign, allowing Getty to run in the resulting by-election and win a place in the provincial assembly.

In the UK, the Prime Minister does not need a seat in Parliament, although by custom he or she is expected to have one:

In theory a Government minister does not have to be a member of either House of Parliament.

In practice, however, convention is that ministers must be members of either the House of Commons or House of Lords in order to be accountable to Parliament.

So in this situation, the party leader would have three options:

  1. Do nothing;

  2. Arrange to be appointed to the House of Lords;

  3. Return to the House of Commons via a by-election, as in the Alberta case.

In theory, any of these would comply with the letter of the law and allow the party leader to serve as Prime Minister. In practice, there would be very strong public demand for the Prime Minister to be a member of the House of Commons, so option (3) would probably be chosen.

A by-election could be arranged within a few weeks. The retiring MP could be rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords and/or a desirable government job. The Prime Minister would face some opposition in the new constituency; but if the party was sufficiently strong there, he or she would probably still win the by-election comfortably.


In short, we have a government by Cabinet, and the Cabinet would need to sort out this situation.

On the formation of a Parliament, following a General Election, the Queen appoints the Prime Minister, however this is done on the advice of the cabinet which would normally reflect the wishes of the PM, so either the PM advises the Queen that she can control a majority in Parliament (and so advises the Queen to reappoint) or she advises the Queen that she cannot control a majority in Parliament, and advises the Queen that she should appoint the leader of the "other" party. The Queen is, according to precedent, required to follow the cabinet's advice.

In the exceptional case that you describe of a Majority Leader losing her own seat, is similar to the situation that would occur were the PM to die in office (in that she would no longer be a member of the privy council, nor the Cabinet). The Cabinet would advise the Queen to appoint her Deputy, or another senior minister, as PM. The old PM could then attempt to re-enter the Commons through a by-election (whereupon the deputy would resign, and advise the Queen to re-appoint). There is no reason why she should not remain as party leader, though the situation is exceptional. It is perhaps more likely that she would take the loss as a personal rejection of her policies, and resign the leadership and exit politics.

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    "she would no longer be a member of the privy council, nor the Cabinet": that's not true. Appointment to the Privy Council is for life; and ministers retain their posts until they are replaced (or choose to resign), whatever happens in the election. Also, it's the outgoing PM who advises the Queen on who to appoint as the new PM. The Cabinet would probably only be involved if the outgoing PM were not available (i.e. if they died) - and indeed the Labour Party constitution has a clause which covers this eventuality. Commented May 31, 2019 at 15:25

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