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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler


The Prime Minster's hospitalisation (from which we all wish him a speedy and complete recovery) has raised a number of constitutional questions which caught the commentators, and some MPs , on the hop.

So let me state some basics of history:-

PRIME MINISTERS. this was originally a term of abuse aimed at George I's PM, Sir Robert Walpole, whom people felt was getting above himself. The first time the title 'Prime Minister' was referred to in an official Government document was during the 19th century Premiership of Disraeli. The first time the title appeared in legislation, however, was in 1905 during the Premiership of Campbell-Bannerman. The original title of the Prime Minister, and one still held today, was First Lord of The Treasury.

All the above is pretty straight forward and clear, despite our lack of a written constitution, save perhaps in the use of the Royal Prerogative over which questions were raised during the Brexit debates.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTERS. this is a relatively modern development and one with little constitutional hinterland. Clement Attlee was the first Minister to carry this title in 1942, during the wartime National Government of Churchill. One reason was the question of succession should the Prime Minster be incapacitated or even killed. When the war ended Attlee continued the practice by appointing Herbert Morrison, Deputy Leader of The Labour Party, as Deputy Prime Minister. Back in Office in 1951 Churchill also appointed a Deputy, Anthony Eden. The post then lapsed between 1955 and 1962 until Harold Macmillan appointed RAB Butler, who also held the title of another new position in Government, First Secretary of State. Macmillan created the latter post so as Butler could sit in Cabinet as a Secretary of State, but without a Departmental brief. This is a great example of how our unwritten constitution is made up on the hoof to resolve an immediate problem, without regard, however, to future implications.

FIRST SECRETARIES OF STATE. thus from 1962, the Prime Minister has three options, viz (1) Appoint neither a Deputy PM nor a first Secretary of State (2) Appoint one or the other (3) Appoint one person to both positions. The Labour Government adopted the use of the newest post of First Secretary from 1964 to 1970, with no Deputy PM. Indeed the next Deputy PM after Butler was not appointed until Mrs Thatcher appointed Geoffrey Howe in 1989. The next time there was a First Secretary after 1970 was Michael Heseltine's appointment by John Major in 1995, who at the same time appointed Heseltine Deputy PM. In short, there was little to no consistency in creating such posts, they were created or not entirely at the pleasure of the PM. Thus there was no firm constitutional basis being developed for either of the two posts.

The problem is perhaps largely a problem with a Conservative Government, because The Labour Party has a duly elected Deputy Leader of The Party, who at least could fulfil a temporary role in the absence of a designated Deputy PM or First Secretary. The Conservatives do not have this post within their constitution, although four men have served with this title in the past, viz Maudling, Whitelaw, Lilley, and Ancram.

The clearest use of the title Deputy PM, since the war, came in 2010 when Cameron, heading a Coalition Government, appointed the Leader of his Coalition partners, Nick Clegg, to the post. The present PM has not appointed a Deputy PM but has appointed Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, additionally to the post of First Secretary.

But the situation at the moment, with a Conservative Government, is confused simply because Raab as First Secretary, and designated deputy to the PM (although not Deputy PM per se),seems to deny that he has the full powers of a PM, but only those necessary to do the immediate job. This is highly undesirable when it comes to questions of national security or on the need, through illness or death, to appoint new members of the Cabinet, for example He is either Deputising in all respects for the PM or he is not. This is very unclear.

It may well be that this is a constitutional question that will need addressing in the aftermath of the present crisis.

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