UK PM Resigning

So I asked this in a thread in elections, and didn’t get the in-depth answer that I was desiring, so I’ll try here.

What happens if the U.K. Prime Minister simply resigns? Specifically, how long does the largest party / coalition have to come up with a new PM?

I think there are three different sorts of resignation we could have here: He could resign from being PM (but remain the leader of his party), resign from the leadership of his party (but remain a member of Parliament), or resign from Parliament. Would this make a difference in the answer?

By convention, when the PM resigns he suggest an alternative to the monarch.
The alternative should be someone who can command majority support in the Commons, or at least plausibly thinks he can.

Long-drawn-out leadership selection processes are a relatively recent innovation in UK political parties. It’s the kind of thing that used to be sorted out over a couple of days through a few conversations in the Carlton Club (the Tories) or in a big committee meeting (Labour).

When May resigned, she announced her intention well in advance so that her party could conduct a leadership election and choose a new leader. After that, she formally resigned, advising the monarch to send for the new party leader in her place.

Obviously if a PM wants to resign now, immediately, they can’t be stopped from doing so. Or, a PM could die in office. In such circumstances the governing party could coalesce around a senior figure to act as PM on an interim basis, pending a formal process to choose a new leader, and the monarch would send for that person. Depending on the circumstances, the outgoing PM might be influential in identifying the immediate successor, but it wouldn’t be down to them alone.

Here’s a good summary: Conservative Party leadership contests | Institute for Government

Although that’s a tiny bit misleading, because it make it sound like the former leader could choose to be PM even without being leader, but that’s only temporary, until someone else has been elected. I suppose there might be some technicality where an ousted leader could refuse to resign as PM, crossing their arms and refusing to leave, but it would be really, really odd. (Which probably means it’s going to happen at some point in the current madhouse that is British politics).

Three out of the last four PMs (May, Cameron and Blair) resigned in that way, and Brown sort of did too - he’d lost the election, but nobody else had exactly won it either, so it wasn’t the usual way of stopping being PM by losing an election and he resigned as both PM and party leader.

Both Cameron and May stayed on as leader for a few weeks while their replacement was chosen. There are no hard and fast rules for how long it should take. Theresa May’s selection was quicker than Boris’s because her only opponent stood down, so she was elected by default without a full second stage of voting.

There’s only one way to resign as PM - you formally advise HM that you’re resigning.

You don’t have to have a seat in the Commons, nor be a party leader, to be PM, and you can be PM without either. However, as a matter of practical politics, you can’t continue for long as PM without a seat or leadership. That is a transitional stage, usually at the beginning or end of being PM.

There can also be the case where the PM is personally defeated, but has enough party support to stay as PM until back in the Commons by a by-election. We had a PM in Canada who twice lost his seat in the general, yet stayed on as PM until he re-entered the House in by-elections. When that PM retired, he stayed on as PM for several months after the party had elected a new leader.

At the provincial level, we even had a case where the government was completely defeated, but stayed in office for a month. The Premier and every government Member lost their seats in the general. They nonetheless stayed on in office for a month, until the incoming government was ready to take office.

The parameters within which problems of this kind get solved are (a) there pretty well has to be a PM at all times - someone must have the nuclear codes, so to speak, and (b) political parties are highly motivated to see one of their own hold tat office, if at all possible. If niceities like “who actually occupies the office of party leader” are getting in the way of that, they won’t be allowed to get in the way of that. If Johnson \were to go at short notice, the party would identify a senior member to act as interim PM, and Johnson would advise the monarch to send for that person, and that person would at least get an opportunity to show that he could command a majority in Parliament. If Johson couldn’t or wouldn’t give that advice, the monarch would take counsel from other senior political figures and from courtiers, and the advice would undoubtedly be to send for that person anyway.

Suppose - we’re in fantasy-land here - the governing party were to split into say three factions, and couldn’t coalesce around an interm PM? That’s a play-it-by-ear state of affairs, I think, but one obvious possiblity is - send for the leaders of the opposition, see if he can cobble together a deal with one of the factions that will give him a majority, so he can be appointed as PM with a view (probably) to an early election.

Even if you can cling to office through default of anyone else who can command a majority, you can’t do very much as PM if you can’t get legislation through parliament, and if you can’t get funds voted to you. So the advantages of clinging to office in that circumstance are doubtful.

For a very long time, though, the convention has been for the PM to be the leader of the party with the most seats. There is talk recently of having a caretaker PM who isn’t even a politician, but it’s almost all joking. I don’t think a British PM would be able to stay on if they lost their seat in parliament - and they always have really safe seats, so if it did happen it would be a sign that they probably *didn’t *have the support of their party.

Only very small parties (like the Brexit party) tend to have leaders who aren’t MPs. Nick Clegg resigned as LibDem leader when he lost his seat in the House of Commons.

Teresa May resigned as party leader some time before resigning as PM; that was obviously an interim arrangement to enable a new party leader to be chosen. The last person to be appointed PM without being party leader, or expecting to become so, was Winston Churchill; he didn’t become party leader until Neville Chamberlain died.

It may be signficant that Churchill was leading an inter-party government; such things may be easier to negotiate and agree if no one party leader takes precedence over the others to become PM. In Ireland, John A Costello twice served as Taoiseach (1948-51 and 1951-54) without ever being leader of his party. Both times, he presided over an inter-party government in which his own party leader, Richard Mulcahy, served under him as Minister for Education.

This is true, but I’d like to add that historically, this convention is surprisingly young. In 1963, when Harold Macmillan resigned as Prime Minister for health reasons, he suggested Alec Douglas-Home to the Queen as his successor. That was not uncontroversial at the time - partially because of Home’s background (he was a hereditary peer, and had to renounce his peerage so he could become a member of the Commons), but partially because it was not clear whether it was within the powers of a Prime Minister to advise the monarch on his own succession.

There’s a distinction here between ordinary “advice” and Prime Ministerial advice.

The constitutional convention is that when the Prime Minister is giving Advice to the monarch, the monarch is normally required to accept that advice. That is because the PM is the leader of the government, controls the House (in ordinary times) and so on.

However, as soon as the PM resigns, the PM ceases to have that authority. The former PM is now just an experienced politician, whose words of wisdom about the current political situation may carry weight with the monarch, but it’s not binding Advice in the constitutional sense. The monarch may well ask the now former PM who is the best person to call to form a government, but isn’t bound to accept that advice.

Was there literally a vacancy in the position of leader of the party, with any decisions about the party administration being made by a deputy leader or something? Or did she just announce her intention to resign, effective as soon as the party chose the new leader?

The Canadian practice is that the leader does the latter, and stays on in a caretaker role until the new leader is chosen. That’s what happened with both Mulroney and Chrétien.

IIRC, before 1963 and before the subsequent formalisation of some sort of elective process among Tory MPs, a new Tory PM would “emerge” by “taking soundings” among MPs, the Tory Lords and the chairs of Tory associations up and down the country.

The situation hadn’t arisen with a Labour PM; what the Liberals did when they were the other party of government, I don’t know, but my impression is there was usually an obvious “heir apparent”, as with Eden succeeding Churchill.

As I understand it, there was literally a vacancy in the position of leader.

Leader isn’t the ultimate authority in the Tory party and, actually, as far as internal party administration goes the leader doesn’t have a lot to do. The leader’s main job is to be the party’s candidate for PM, and to provide political leadershp to the parliamentary party (the MPs and serving Lords who take the party whip).

Actual party administration is deal with by others - the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Conservative Campaign Headquarters (staffed by professionals, under the direction of the Chairman) and the Conservative Party Board (representatives of the parliamentary party, CCHQ and the local conservative associatiatons). The party leader appoints the Chairman and sits on the Conservative Party Board and so is not without influence, but the party can certainly run for many months with no party leader in office.

Interesting. Thanks for the explanation.

IN Aus, if the PM went crazy and “simply resigned”, by calling on the Governor General and giving the GG a resignation, in writing, then the government would continue, in the same way that the USA government would continue if the President “simply resigned”. Government departments would continue doing government department things. The Prime Ministers department would answer to the Deputy Prime Minister. Government Ministers would continue to be government ministers. If parliament was in session, parliamentary business would continue – with the opposition throwing a fit, obstructing, and demanding that the government go to an election. If parliament was not in session, ministers would continue to make decisions, back benchers would continue with constituency issues, the opposition would throw a fit, demanding that parliament be recalled…

The Deputy Prime Minister could simply show up at government house, and ask to be sworn in as Prime Minister.

The technical issues are small, and have almost nothing to do with the massive political issues that would result. First would be the question of if the ex-PM was going to vote. And if so, how he was going to vote. Then if he would vote in the party room, and how he would vote in the party room.

It’s normal here for the PM to first resign (or be fired) from the position of leader of their Parliamentary Party (which is just the parliamentary members), then (if their bluff fails) resign to the GG. They may or may not soon resign from their seat. It’s up to the parliamentary party to see if they can pick up the pieces and select someone else – they know that they’ve got to hang together, or they will assuredly all loose their elections separately.

Let’s assume a PM up and resigned leaving the position vacant and let’s presume there is an ongoing matter where all involved believe the PM position should not be left vacant until a new one is selected … is there a vice-PM in the Cabinet (like Chancellor of the Exchequer) that would take over or would the monarch use their reserve power to appoint a PM and then when “advised” would sack that PM and appoint the new PM or something else?

That’s all I could find, but it seems pretty straight forward.

The outgoing PM always ‘advises’ the King who to send for - usually whoever appears to have the best chance of commanding a majority in the House. The British constitution knows no office of a Vice PM.

The UK sometimes has, and sometimes does not have, a senior cabinet member designated as Deputy PM. If there is a Deputy PM, their main role is - duh - to deputise for the PM if, e.g., the PM is absent on business somewhere else, and can’t attend a cabinet meeting, or go to parliament for question time, or whatever. If no minister is designated with the title “Deputy PM” there will still be a minister to deputise for the PM as the occasion requires. (Currently this is done by Dominic Raab, who has the title “First Secretary of State”, but not “Deputy PM”.)

But the deputy PM has no right of succcession, and does not fill the office in the event of a casual vacancy - to deputise for the PM requires that there be a PM to deputise for. So in the event of a casual vacancy, someone has to be appointed PM, even if only on an interim basis.

This hasn’t happened in modern times in the UK, but it has happened several times in Australia.

  • In 1939 the Prime Minister Joe Lyons died. He was the leader of the larger party, the United Australia Party, in a coalistion government which also included the Australian Country Party. He was sccceeded as PM on an interim basis by Earle Page, leader of the Country Party, who served for 19 days until the UAP chose Robert Menzies as its new leader, and he became PM.

  • In 1945 Labor PM John Curtin died. His was a single-party government. Frank Forde, who was the deputy leader of the Labor Party, was appointed PM pending a leadership contest. Forde participated in that contest but lost out to Ben Chifley, who then became Prime Minister. Forde served just 7 days as PM.

  • In 1967 the Liberal Party PM Harold Hold died in a drowing accident. He led a coalition government; he was succeed as PM by the leader of the minor party in that goverment, John McEwan, who served for 22 days until the Liberals chose John Gorton as their new leader.

No doubt something very similar would happen were a casual vacancy to arise in the UK. There must be a PM. The government of the day would take a rapid decision to identify one of their number to be appointed on an interim basis, pending a process to choose a new PM with a sufficient mandate.

Yes, the key question for the OP is “what do you mean”?

Whether business, politics, or party politics, few senior leaders march in and announce “I’m gone as of today”. Most stay on until there’s a replacement, or designate someone to fill in temporarily.

(IIRC, this is what happens to many leaders who lose - I think both losing parties had to endure an interim leader when their leader failed to perform. Seems to be a tradition in Canada) Of course, not too many Prime Ministers quit cold turkey - usually they and their cabinet stay on until an election can be called. Even if they lose a non-confidence vote, let alone an election, there’s a wait until the official transition could occur, much lik the daly between election and inauguration in the USA. (However, rarely more than a week or two)

If Boris did pull a “screw this, I’m outta here” then if he did not nominate a successor for the Queen to anoint, then his party brass would. If the lead party split into factions, then presumably the arguing for the next day or so would be which group in parliament (probably a not-split opposition party) commands the most number of seats, and by tradition would be asked. This is the simplest way to select that shows no favouritism by the Queen. I presume worst case she would summon the main faction and party leaders to the palace and tell them to get their shit together and give her the choice with the best chance of winning a confidence vote from a majority. If nobody could agree on a choice, nobody could get a confidence vote, and parliament is is chaos, then she pulls a Netanyahu and calls an election, even if they just had one a few months previously. In cases like this, she asks the existing government to stay on, for simplicity and continuity until the election is over, and picks the interim PM from whoever is pushed forward by the party/cabinet.

As I understand 1939, Churchill was the noisiest critic about appeasement and the danger of Germany. When he proved to be fatally right and Poland was invaded despite feeding the wolf what it wanted, there really wasn’t anyone else who had the credibility to become the leader of a war government - which IIRC was a coalition of all parties, to avoid factional infighting during a time of crisis.