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How to Become Prime Minister

The Prime Minister is the highest position you can hold in the British Government.

To become Prime Minister there are a number of steps to go through….

  • Get selected as a parliamentary candidate for your chosen political party
  • Fight a General Election and win the most votes, becoming a Member of Parliament for a constituency (area) of voters
  • Usually become a member of the ‘backbenches’ in the House of Commons and with the approval of the Leader of your political party work through junior ministerial or ‘shadow’ ministerial positions if your party is not in power. Being a member of the Cabinet, preferably Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary helps but is not essential, the Westminster bubble throws out all sorts of surprises. 
  • Wait for the ‘opportunity’ of a leadership contest. These can be through retirements, death or resignations following scandals, votes of no confidence or election/referendum defeats. If the Prime Minister resigns then this doesn’t automatically mean a new General Election for the country as in Great Britain you elect the party and not the Prime Minister. This was the case when Tony Blair stepped down as PM and Gordon Brown, his Chancellor of the Exchequer took over. 
  • Stand in the contest to become leader of your party and get enough votes based on your parties way of selecting leaders. This could be a vote of party members, current members of parliament and even trade union members. In 2016 Theresa May was selected by Conservative MP's to become the next leader of the party and therefore PM. The procedure would have seen a vote of party members but after a matter of days she became the only candidate still standing.
  • Run an effective campaign (usually giving a good speech) set out your vision and plans for the party and the country and win!
  • At this point you will become Prime Minister if your political party is already in Government.
  • If your party is not in power then you become leader but have to wait for the next General Election, held every five years thanks to 2011 Fixed term Parliaments Act. You must then run an effective campaign from a position of opposition and aim to win more votes than the current Prime Minister’s political party. This way you can become Prime Minister. If you don't achieve this outright i.e. form a majority (but nor do your opponents) then you can club together with other political parties and agree that you will become Prime Minister of a coalition or minority government.

The Exception

There has been a modern day exception who came from the House of Lords and not the House of Commons.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home - Conservative Prime Minister 1963 to 1964

Sir Alec Douglas-Home Born
2 July 1903, London

Died
9 October 1995, Berwickshire

Dates in office
1963 to 1964

 

Sir Alec Douglas-Home only served as Prime Minister for 363 days but he oversaw the abolition of resale price maintenance and took a tough stance in dealing with the trade unions. He documented his life in The Way The Wind Blows: An Autobiography 

Sir Alec Douglas-Home was born in Mayfair, London, into an aristocratic family. He attended Eton College followed by Oxford University, where he graduated with a third class BA in Modern History. He also played first class cricket for prominent clubs.

In 1931, he entered Parliament as a Scottish Unionist Party (combined with the Conservative Party in 1965) MP for Lanark. As Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain from 1937 to 1939, he attended the Munich Conference in 1938, though he was not tainted by the fallout.

Severe illness during the Second World War prevented him from active participation, and he lost his seat in the 1945 General Election.

After his father passed away, he became the 14th Earl of Home and took a seat in the House of Lords. He served as Commonwealth Secretary during the Suez Crisis of 1956, in addition to holding the positions of Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council.

In 1959, the Conservative Party under Harold Macmillan won the General Election. The following year, he was appointed Foreign Secretary. He remained in the role until 18 October 1963, when Macmillan suddenly resigned due to a prostate condition that was exacerbated by the Profumo Affair.

Douglas-Home’s emergence as the new leader of the Conservative Party attracted some claims that Macmillan had worked to make sure ‘The Magic Circle’ deny Rab Butler the leadership, but Reginald Maudling had also been a strong candidate. Even so, he rejected his peerage on 23 October 1963 and became Sir Alec Douglas-Home. On 7 November he contested and won the constituency of Kinross and West Perthshire – but for the 2 weeks in between he was a Prime Minister who belonged to neither the House of Commons nor the House of Lords.

He did not originally seek the position of Prime Minister, but was widely respected by his party and its future leaders. By the time he took over, the Conservative Party had been in office for 12 years and had contested 3 elections.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home was the fourth party leader during the period. In contrast, Harold Wilson was a fearful leader of the Labour Party. Despite this, Sir Alec Douglas-Home concentrated heavily on winning the next election and as a result he narrowed the Labour lead in the opinion polls. He also took a tough stance in dealing with the trade unions.

During Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s premiership, American President John F Kennedy was assassinated, and relations with Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B Johnson deteriorated after the sale of British Leyland buses to Cuba. Macmillan famously described Sir Alec Douglas-Home to the Queen as ‘steel painted as wood.’

Sir Alec Douglas-Home was an unexpected Prime Minister and served for only 363 days, the second shortest premiership in the 20th century – but he pushed his plan as he did not see any reason why the Conservative Party would not win a fourth term. The general election held on 15 October 1964 saw Wilson win a 4-seat majority.

Despite defeat, he went on to serve as Foreign Secretary throughout Edward Heath’s premiership from 1970 to 1974.

Other interesting books on Douglas-Home