Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: Wikis


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The Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is a senior member of the British Cabinet. There is not always a Deputy Prime Minister; the office itself is not part of the UK's uncodified constitution, nor does the Government possess a formal permanent office of Deputy Prime Minister. It only exists when the Prime Minister chooses to appoint one of their cabinet colleagues as a Deputy, as a form of honorific.

Unlike analogous offices in some other nations, including the United States Vice Presidency, a British Deputy Prime Minister possesses no special powers above those of his or her ministry. He or she does not assume the duties and powers of the Prime Minister in the latter's absence or illness, such as the powers to seek a dissolution of parliament, appoint peers or brief the sovereign. He does not automatically succeed the Prime Minister, should the latter be incapacitated or resign from the leadership of his or her political party. In practice, however, the designation of someone to the role of Deputy Prime Minister may provide additional practical status within cabinet, enabling the exercise of de facto, if not de jure, power. When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, he did not appoint a Deputy Prime Minister. However, in his third cabinet reshuffle in June 2009, Lord Mandelson was appointed as First Secretary of State effectively becoming the Deputy Prime Minister in all but name.


Why no Deputy Prime Minister?

Many theories exist as to the absence of a formal post of Deputy Prime Minister in Britain's uncodified constitution. Theoretically the sovereign possesses the unrestricted right to choose someone to form a government[1] following the death, resignation, or dismissal of a Prime Minister.[2] One argument made to justify the non-existence of a permanent deputy premiership is that such an office-holder would be seen as possessing a presumption of succession to the premiership, thereby effectively limiting the sovereign's right to choose a prime minister.[3]

In practice, however, only two Deputy Prime Ministers have gone on to become Prime Minister. Clement Attlee won the 1945 general election and succeeded Sir Winston Churchill after their coalition broke up. At the end of Churchill's second term, Sir Anthony Eden was appointed not because he had been Deputy Prime Minister, but because he had long been seen as Churchill's heir apparent and natural successor.

The intermittent existence of a Deputy Prime Minister has been on occasion so informal that there have been a number of occasions on which dispute has arisen as to whether or not the title has actually been conferred. On some occasions the post First Secretary of State has been conferred on the Deputy Prime Minister. While Deputy Prime Minister is effectively an honorific which carries with it no salary, First Secretary of State is a salaried cabinet position, albeit with no responsibilities. When John Prescott lost his ministerial responsibilities in a reshuffle in 2005 he was given the post of First Secretary of State to enable him to receive a ministerial post and a seat in cabinet.


Designation as a Deputy Prime Minister can be for a number of reasons:

  • as a consolation prize to a senior party figure whose hopes of becoming leader and prime minister had been dashed (for example, Michael Heseltine, Rab Butler);
  • as a status symbol to reward a senior party figure for his/her loyalty (for example William Whitelaw);
  • as a means of giving additional status to the leader of the junior partner in a coalition government (for example Clement Attlee in Churchill's wartime coalition);
  • as a method of silencing a critic by giving them the appearance of additional status (for example, Sir Geoffrey Howe, having been removed from the Foreign Office);
  • as a way of giving the Deputy Leader of the Party a symbolic status in government (for example, John Prescott).

The Deputy Prime Ministership, where it exists, may bring with it practical influence depending on the status of the holder, rather than the status of the position.

Labour Party leader Clement Attlee held the post in the wartime coalition government led by Winston Churchill, and had general responsibility for domestic affairs, allowing Churchill to concentrate on the war. Rab Butler held the post in 1962-3 under Harold Macmillan, but was passed over for the premiership in favour of Alec Douglas-Home.

William Whitelaw was Margaret Thatcher's deputy from 1979-1988, a post he combined with that of Home Secretary in 1979-83 and Leader of the House of Lords after 1983. Sir Geoffrey Howe was given the title in 1989, on being removed from the post of Foreign Secretary. He resigned as Deputy Prime Minister in 1990, making a resignation speech that is widely thought to have hastened Thatcher's downfall. Thatcher's successor John Major did not appoint a Deputy Prime Minister until 1995, when Michael Heseltine was given the post.

Other functions

John Prescott, who was elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in opposition, was appointed Deputy Prime Minister by Tony Blair in 1997, in addition to being Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. In 2001 this "superdepartment" was split up, with Prescott being given his own Office of the Deputy Prime Minister with fewer specific responsibilities. In May 2006 the department was removed from the control of the Deputy Prime Minister and renamed as the Department for Communities and Local Government with Ruth Kelly as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.


Given that there is no constitutional office of Deputy Prime Minister, with the position being recreated on a case by case basis, the person who holds the post has no official residence. As a cabinet minister however they may have the use of a grace and favour London residence and country house. John Prescott had the use of a flat in Admiralty House and Dorneywood, a country residence.

List of Deputy Prime Ministers

During the Heath and Wilson administrations of the 1970s, the title of Deputy Prime Minister was not used. In his Memoirs, Reginald Maudling describes himself as Deputy Prime Minister under Heath 1970 - 1972 (when he resigned over the Poulson affair). He had been Home Secretary. The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Ted Short, was Leader of the House of Commons 1974 - 1976 and often thought of as Deputy Prime Minister, indeed he is specifically referred to as such in the citation for being made an Honorary Freeman of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne.

John Prescott stood down as Deputy Prime Minister on 27 June 2007. He has been succeeded as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party by Harriet Harman. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has not appointed a Deputy Prime Minister, although on 5 June 2009, he appointed Lord Mandelson to the position of First Secretary of State, which is often held jointly with the office of Deputy Prime Minister.

Name Picture Entered office Left office Political party & position Other ministerial offices held whilst in post
Clement Attlee Attlee BW cropped.jpg 19 February 1942 23 May 1945 Labour (Leader; junior leader in a Coalition Government) Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs (until 24 September 1943)
Lord President of the Council (from 24 September 1943)
Herbert Morrison 26 July 1945 26 October 1951 Labour (Deputy Leader) Lord President of the Council (until 16 March 1951)
Leader of the House of Commons (until 16 March 1951)
Foreign Secretary (from 16 March 1951)
Sir Anthony Eden AREden.jpg 26 October 1951 6 April 1955 Conservative Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (until 7 April 1955)
R. A. Butler 13 July 1962 18 October 1963 Conservative First Secretary of State
William Whitelaw
(Viscount Whitelaw fom 1983)
4 May 1979 10 January 1988 Conservative Home Secretary (5 May 1979 – 11 June 1983)
Lord President of the Council (from 11 June 1983)
Leader of the House of Lords (from 11 June 1983)
Sir Geoffrey Howe 24 July 1989 1 November 1990 Conservative Lord President of the Council
Leader of the House of Commons
Michael Heseltine 20 July 1995 2 May 1997 Conservative First Secretary of State
John Prescott John Prescott on his last day as Deputy Prime Minister, June 2007.jpg 2 May 1997 27 June 2007 Labour (Deputy Leader) Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (until 8 June 2001)
First Secretary of State (from 8 June 2001)

See also


  1. ^ In the British constitutional tradition, the sovereign invites someone to form a government "capable of surviving in the House of Commons". This is not the same as having a majority. In theory a minority government could survive if the opposition parties were divided on issues and so failed to all vote together against the government. In times of national emergency, sovereigns set a different, higher standard, namely that a government be formed "capable of commanding a majority in the House of Commons." In the event of no party possessing a majority, this forces the party invited to form a government to enter into a coalition with another party. This latter request was made on only a handful of cases, most notably in 1916 when King George V invited Andrew Bonar Law to form a government, who declined so the King invited David Lloyd George to form a government. Lloyd George was forced by the nature of his commission to form a coalition government.
  2. ^ No Prime Minister has been dismissed by a sovereign since 1834. Except in exceptional circumstances it is thought unlikely that a prime minister would ever be dismissed. Stanley de Smith and Rodney Brazier, Constitutional and Administrative Law (Penguin, 1989) p.116.
  3. ^ In practice the monarch's choice has been limited by the evolution of a clear party structure, with each party possessing a structure by which leaders are elected. Only where no party has a majority, or where a division exists between the person chosen by the party's electoral college and its MPs on who should be prime minister, can a modern sovereign expect to make a decision on whom to appoint.


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