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The UK Parliament and the Government

In Britain Parliament and Government are more intertwined than in many other political systems.

This works in a number of ways:-

Ministers are Members of Parliament

The constitutional convention of ministerial responsibility to parliament requires them to be there, in contrast, to the American, French or Dutch systems in which anyone who is appointed as a Minister has to stand down from Congress or the Parliaments. British Prime Ministers, then, cannot appoint anyone as a Minister, they have to be got into Parliament.

In 1964, Patrick Gordon Walker, who was expected to become Labour’s Foreign Secretary, lost his seat in Smethwick against the swing and the Labour MP for Leyton was persuaded to stand down for him, but the voters did not like losing a popular MP and rejected Gordon Walker.

Since then Prime Ministers have not followed the by-election route and have put people they want to be Ministers into the Lords.

In most cases these are relatively junior Ministers such as Lord Young and Lord Digby Jones but a problem was caused when Peter Mandelson was brought back by Gordon Brown and was not only Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills but more or less Deputy Prime Minister.

It was difficult that such an important Minister was not able to answer questions in the Commons, but had to leave this to his junior ministers, and there was some suggestion that Commons rules should be changed to allow him to speak but not, of course, vote, there but, in the end, this never happened.

The requirement to have ministers in Parliament does mean that they have to be drawn from the pool of talent there rather than in the country as a whole.

Ministers have a Physical Presence

Ministers are physically in the Commons and lead debates, they go through the division lobbies and visit the tea rooms and bars with backbench MPs and so have regular contact with them. Their performance in the Commons is important for party morale and will be regularly discussed by backbenchers.

There is Collective Responsibility

The constitutional convention of Collective Responsibility means that all ministers have to vote with the Government and not speak against its policies or resign, often called the ’payroll vote’ as Ministers have a ministerial salary as well as their MP’s salary.

Ministers who resign are allowed to explain why in the Commons and the critical resignation speeches of Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe, formerly Chancellor and Foreign Secretary in Mrs Thatcher’s Government, seriously weakened her as Prime Minister.

The number of ministers has gradually increased in the post-war period, although there is a legal limit of 95 in the Commons.

In addition, Ministers have MPs who act as Private Parliamentary Secretaries who are normally expected to vote with the Government and so Governments can count on well over a hundred votes in all divisions.

There have been recent criticisms of the number of ministers especially as the government is to reduce the number of MPs to 600 but not the number of Ministers.

They Vote on the Queen’s Speech

The House of Commons has been able to bring the Government down if it loses the vote on the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the Government’s legislation for the coming Parliamentary session or a confidence motion.

This happened twice in 1924 and in 1979 and the convention has been that the Government resigns immediately. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 has changed this by giving the Government 14 days after losing a confidence vote to win a new vote of confidence.

Although legally a defeat on the Queen’s Speech or the Budget will not force a Government to resign, in practice either would almost certainly trigger a confidence motion.

They Control Most of the Business of the House

The Government controls most of the business that takes place in the Chamber of the Commons. A few days are set aside for the Opposition to initiate a debate and there is time set aside on Fridays for individual MPs to promote their own legislation and, a recent change, time is allocated by a new Backbench Business Committee but otherwise the Government’s legislation and statements and issues take priority.