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What’s the difference between UK frontbench and backbench MPs?

Below we set out the differences between being a backbench Member of the UK Parliament and a frontbench Member of Parliament.

The terms frontbenchers and backbenchers, is from the different places in which they sit on the House of Commons benches.

On the frontbench

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 and the Deputy Chief Whip. 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. 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 therefore has a group of MPs that it can always rely on in votes. This is often called the Payroll Vote because Ministers draw a salary on top of what they receive as an MP.

The shadow frontbench

The largest Opposition party will have MPs, appointed by the Leader of the Opposition.

They 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 Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats, in opposition, also have 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.

So, who’s left…

All other Members of Parliament (except the Speaker and Deputy Speakers) are backbenchers.