A briefing paper on the legal issues surrounding a Scottish independence referendum
This Insight looks at what happens when Liz Truss formally resigns as Prime Minister and the King appoints her successor, based upon prime ministerial memoirs and other sources.
The Cabinet Manual, which sets out the main laws, conventions and rules on the operation of government, states that Prime Ministers “hold office unless and until they resign”. Historically, the Monarch could dismiss a Prime Minister and make a personal choice of successor. Today it is for political parties “to determine and communicate clearly to the Sovereign who is best placed to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons”.
If an incumbent Prime Minister’s party wins an overall majority in a general election (as in 2019), they continue in office, although by custom they still seek an audience with the Monarch.
It was once the case that if the nature of a government changed – ie a wartime or cross-party coalition was formed – then the Prime Minister would resign and immediately be reappointed. This occurred in 1931 and 1945 but not in 2015, when David Cameron simply informed Queen Elizabeth II of his “willingness to continue his commission as Prime Minister”.
If an election results in an overall majority for a different party (as in 1997), the incumbent Prime Minister will resign and the Monarch will invite the winning party’s leader to form a government. If the election result is unclear (as in 2010) then political parties must establish who is able to form the next government.
If a Prime Minister chooses to resign when their administration has an overall majority (as in 2022 – twice), it is for the party or parties in government (and their members) to identify who can be chosen as the successor. The Prime Minister only formally resigns and recommends a successor to the Monarch once this process is over.
A Prime Minister must be or about to become an MP. A peer has not served as premier since 1902. Sir Alec Douglas-Home was a peer upon his appointment as Prime Minister on 19 October 1963, but renounced his peerage four days later and was elected an MP at a by-election on 7 November. They must also be a Privy Counsellor, although incoming premiers usually already are (the last who was not was Ramsay MacDonald in 1924).
The arrangements for a change in Prime Minister are usually made by the Monarch and Prime Minister’s respective private secretaries. Buckingham Palace will call an incoming premier, telling them to “stand by” or summoning them to see the Monarch at a particular time. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan both recall being asked when it would “be convenient” for them to meet the Monarch.
Following an election, a new premier will usually arrive at Buckingham Palace (or another Royal residence) in their own car and leave in the Prime Minister’s official vehicle, although there are exceptions: In 2010 David Cameron was driven to the Palace in the prime ministerial Jaguar despite not being Prime Minister.
While most Prime Ministers resign or are appointed at Buckingham Palace, others have done so at Windsor. An exception was H. H. Asquith in 1908, who had to take a boat and train to Biarittz in France, where King Edward VII was on holiday. He is the only Prime Minister to have been appointed outside the UK. Liz Truss was appointed Prime Minister at Balmoral, which last occurred when Lord Salisbury became Prime Minister in 1885.
When a Prime Minister has resigned or lost an election, recent custom is for them to be photographed with their families at Downing Street before they drive to the Palace. Some have also held a final session of Prime Minister’s Questions and made a speech outside Number 10 (“when the curtain falls,” said John Major in 1997, “it’s time to get off the stage”). Aerial cameras then follow the Prime Minister’s car as it drives up Whitehall, along the Mall and through the front gates of the Palace.
The Monarch meets the departing Prime Minister and their successor, often in quick succession. In the interim, certain executive powers are vested in the Monarch (until 1963, a gap of a day or two wasn’t uncommon).
Recently, it has become customary for a former Prime Minister’s partner and children to be invited to meet the Monarch following their resignation.
A Prime Minister can resign in writing, which occurred in 1902, 1908 and 1963 because of ill health. “My letter of resignation was sent and delivered to Palace at 9.30am,” recorded Harold Macmillan in his diary on 18 October 1963. “So ended my premiership.” Queen Elizabeth visited him in hospital later that morning.
When the outgoing premier has departed (in 2016, Theresa May’s car entered the Palace gates 32 seconds after David Cameron’s left), their successor will be greeted in the Palace courtyard by an equerry and the King’s Private Secretary. They will wait in an antechamber to be briefed, most likely by the Lord Chamberlain, before entering the Monarch’s private apartments.
Only the Monarch and incoming premier are present during this audience. The Monarch appoints a Prime Minister under the Royal Prerogative which forms part of common law. The Monarch does so by asking the new Prime Minister to form an administration, to which they usually respond “yes”.
In October 1963, however, Sir Alec Douglas-Home asked for “leave to go away and see if I could form an administration”, as some in his party were reluctant to serve under him as Prime Minister. Having done so, he was appointed premier at his second audience. In 2010, David Cameron was appointed Prime Minister but said he “wasn’t entirely sure what type of government it would be”.
When it is clear an individual can form a government, they are made Prime Minister, to quote Harold Wilson in 1964, “on the spot”. They also become First Lord of the Treasury from that moment, although the Oath of Office (as First Lord) is taken at a later meeting of the Privy Council (meetings can take place virtually). There are no seals of office as Prime Minister.
There is also no kissing of hands, although that phrase is used to describe the process. This used to occur but has fallen into abeyance (Tony Blair, however, recalls tripping on the carpet so he “practically fell upon the Queen’s hands, not so much brushing as enveloping them”). Instead, an incoming male premier will bow and shake hands with the Monarch, and a female premier will curtsy. In recent years this moment has been photographed for the media. There are no other formalities.
Having accepted this “commission” to form a government, there follows a brief exchange between the Monarch and their new Prime Minister. Gordon Brown recalled “a congenial and businesslike conversation about the work that lay ahead”.
Some former Prime Ministers have returned to Downing Street despite no longer holding office. Neville Chamberlain did so in 1940 and on 6 April 1955, Sir Winston Churchill dealt with government business before giving a farewell tea party for staff. In 1976 Harold Wilson went to Chequers after his resignation; in 1997 John Major watched cricket at the Oval and, in 2007, Tony Blair travelled to his Sedgefield constituency.
A newly appointed premier will be escorted out of the Palace (via the Ministers’ Staircase) by the Lord Chamberlain or the Monarch’s Private Secretary, who now addresses them as “Prime Minister”. As the Thatchers drove through the Palace gates in 1979, “Denis noticed that this time the Guards saluted” his wife.
New Prime Ministers generally go to 10 Downing Street (which they inhabit by virtue of being First Lord of the Treasury) and make a speech. They announce their acceptance of the Monarch’s commission to form an administration and make a statement of intent. Afterwards, a new Prime Minister traditionally enters Number 10 to applause from staff.
About the author: Dr David Torrance is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in monarchy and the constitution.
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