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Discover Central Government

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Who runs the UK Government?     

The Government consists of about 100 politicians, most of whom are Ministers.

The Constitutional convention is that they have to be in Parliament, either the Commons or the Lords, so that they can answer in Parliament for decisions taken by their Department.

Different levels of responsibility

There are different levels of responsibility:-

The Prime Minister

The Prime Minister is responsible for the overall running of the Government.

He or she normally appoints all other Ministers and can also remove them at any time but there may be political consequences if major figures are sacked.

The coming together of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in a coalition from 2010 to 2015 limited the Prime Minister’s power.

The Coalition Agreement specified a number of ministerial places for the Liberal Democrats and so decisions about their appointment and replace were made instead by Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader.

The Deputy Prime Minister

There has not always been a Deputy Prime Minister, indeed there is legally no such position.

  • Willie Whitelaw was an elder statesman giving advice to Margaret Thatcher in her first Government
  • John Prescott acted as the voice of traditional Labour in Tony Blair’s New Labour Government but also insisted on running a major Department
  • John Major and Gordon Brown did not appoint anyone at first but later brought in Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson respectively to try to bolster their Governments.
  • When the Coalition was formed it was obvious for Nick Clegg, as the Leader of the smaller Coalition partner, to become Deputy Prime Minister but with much more power to veto and influence decisions than any previous Deputy.
  • Cameron did not appoint a Deputy Prime Minister in the new Conservative Government formed in 2015 but George Osborne was really one in practice.

Secretaries of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer

Secretaries of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are in charge of the Government Departments and have the responsibility for putting through the Government’s policies, some of which will be in its election manifesto, and dealing with major issues.

They will represent the Government in Parliament speaking in key debates, make statements on new policies and important issues and answer questions from MPs.

They form the Cabinet and sit on the various committees of the Cabinet.

The Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary have been seen as the most important Cabinet ministers and, since 1945, when a Prime Minister has retired from office the successor has always been Chancellor or Foreign Secretary.

There are generally one or two Cabinet ministers who are responsible for a policy that cuts across Departments and do not have a Department of their own. The Leader of the House is the Cabinet Minister who oversees the organisation of Government business in the Commons.

The Prime Minister also appoints MPs who are lawyers as the Attorney General and Solicitor General and they advise the Government and the Cabinet on legal issues, for example, and controversially, whether the invasion of Iraq was legal under international law.  Only ministers attending Cabinet can have special advisers.

Ministers of State

Ministers of State are subordinate to the Secretary of State in a Department but take responsibility for a specific area such as Schools, European relations or Crime Prevention.

They are generally the ministers that will see Government legislation through Parliament and will answer questions from MPs in their area.  A few are presently in the Cabinet.

Junior Ministers

Junior Ministers, most of whom have the title of Parliamentary Under-Secretary, have specific responsibilities within a Department but their impact depends on how much leeway the Secretary of State allows them.

The post gives them experience of Government and allows the Prime Minister to reward a number of MPs who have been loyal or are talented and also ensure their support.

This changed with the Coalition as one of the junior ministers was a Liberal Democrat in a Department where all the other ministers are Conservatives and so were able to appeal to the Deputy Prime Minister if he or she disagreed with Departmental policy.

There are four or more in most Departments reflecting the variety of work that Government has to deal with.  They are not able to direct the Permanent Secretary, who is the chief civil servant in the Department and so can potentially be overruled.

The Whips

There are a number of Whips, currently the Chief Whip, the Deputy Chief Whip and 15 other Whips.

Their jobs is to keep in touch with the Government’s backbench MPs in the House of Commons to make sure that the Government wins all votes there and report back the views of backbenchers to Ministers and the Prime Minister.

They help the Minister responsible for a Bill to get it through Parliament but do not take part in Parliamentary debate.

Under the Coalition the Chief Whip was a Conservative and the Deputy was a Liberal Democrat and there are other whips of both parties who deal only with MPs of their own party.

Parliamentary Private Secretary

Each Secretary of State and the Prime Minister has an MP who has been appointed as their Parliamentary Private Secretary.

They are not able to direct civil servants and their main responsibility is to liaise between the Government’s backbenchers and the Minister to get views on the Minister’s performance in Parliament and discuss policies with backbenchers.