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What's the difference between front and back bench?

The other major division in Parliament is between frontbenchers and backbenchers, so called because of the different places in which they sit on the House of Commons benches. The convention of the Constitution is that all ministers have to be in Parliament (generally the Commons but a few are in the Lords) because of the doctrine of Ministerial Accountability to Parliament. This requires them to be able to answer in person to members of Parliament for what happens in their Departments and the policies that these are carrying out.

About 90 MPs become Government Ministers. They consist of:-

The Prime Ministers who normally appoints and can remove all Ministers.  The 2010-2015 Coalition changed this as the Liberal Democrats were allocated a number of ministerial positions and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who was also Deputy Prime Minister, appointed and removes them not the Prime Minister.

Ministers in the Cabinet who mostly run Government Departments such as the Foreign Office or the Department of Education.

Junior Ministers who take responsibility for a particular area of policy within a Department and report to the Cabinet Minister who has overall control of the Department.

The Whips.  The Chief Whip is a Conservative MP and the Deputy Chief Whip is a Liberal Democrat.  They have a team of other MPs who act as whips for their respective parties.  Their main function is to manage Parliament and the MPs who support the Government to see that the Government’s business goes through and that the Government wins the votes.

Some MPs are Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The Prime Minister and the Departmental Ministers each have a PPS whose jobs it is to liaise between Minister and backbenchers in Parliament to find out what MPs are thinking about issues and how well the Minister is doing inside and outside Parliament and to promote the Minister’s policies to backbenchers.

All these Ministers are expected to always vote with the Government in Parliament.  This follows from the doctrine of Cabinet Collective Responsibility so that although there may be arguments about decisions within the Government and within the Cabinet, once a decision is taken it must be publicly supported by the whole Government.  If Ministers do not do this they are expected to resign or they may be sacked by the Prime Minister.  The Government thus has a group of MPs that it can always rely on in votes, often called the Payroll Vote because Ministers draw a salary on top of what they receive as an MP

The largest Opposition party (currently Labour) will have MPs, appointed by the Leader of the Opposition, who shadow Government Ministers in the sense that they reply in Parliament to them and criticise or question their policies. They are given the first opportunity to speak after a Government minister has spoken in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats, in opposition, also has a set of shadow spokespersons though these are not officially recognised as such in Parliament.  The discipline of voting with their party is not so strict for Shadow spokespersons as it is with Government Ministers but they are still likely to be removed if it lapse too often from the party line.

All other MPs (except the Speaker and Deputy Speakers) are backbenchers.

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  • DID YOU KNOW? Lord Michael Dobbs, once adviser to Margaret Thatcher wrote House of Cards, now starring Kevin Spacey.

 

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