What happens if the British Prime Minister Dies?

Boris Johnson image from Chatham House

The world is full of uncertainty, so it is always prudent to have a contingency plan in case of the unexpected. For any kind of organization, the most important contingency plan to have is a succession plan, so that the organization can continue to exist and operate even if key people within it are suddenly and permanently unable to perform their tasks.

This is why monarchy is the oldest form of government in recorded human history, and why it was, for millennia, the most popular political structure in the world, independently emerging in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. “When I die, my oldest son is in charge” is a very simple and intuitive succession plan. However, when the Founding Fathers of the United States explicitly rejected monarchy, that meant they had to come up with a new succession plan for the Constitution they were writing. Thus, Article II not only created the office of President of the United States, but also created the Vice President, who is elected at the same time and takes over if something happens to the President. Good thing, too, as there have been nine times in U.S. history that the Vice President has had to step up and take over as President. What’s more, Congress has created a contingency plan for the contingency plan, passing a law listing who takes over if both the President and Vice President die or are otherwise unable to serve, creating a clear line of succession that is 17 names long.

Now, the United Kingdom is a monarchy, of course; it’s right in the name. United KINGDOM. So when the Queen eventually passes from this world, her eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales, will immediately become the new king. His eldest son, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, will then become the new Prince of Wales and next in line to the throne. The line of succession to the British throne is quite clear, and like in the United States, there is a long list of people in that line, ensuring that come what may, SOMEONE is there to take the Crown even in the most unthinkable of circumstances.

But what about the Prime Minister?

As I write this, the world is gripped by a global pandemic caused by a highly contagious and sometimes fatal viral disease dubbed by the World Health Organization as “COVID-19”, popularly referred to as “coronavirus“. The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was hospitalized and put in intensive care after contracting the virus. As of this writing, his condition has significantly improved, with his spokesperson stating he is now “able to do short walks between periods of rest”.

This scare has brought up an interesting question: what, exactly, happens if a Prime Minister dies in office? This is a question that the United Kingdom hasn’t had to face in living memory, as the last Prime Minister who died in office was Lord Palmerston in 1865. The answer isn’t exactly simple, either, and to understand it, we have to first understand the exact role the Prime Minister plays in the British political system.

The United Kingdom, unlike the United States or most other countries around the world, doesn’t actually have a formal, codified constitution. Instead, the British political system is the result of nearly 1,000 years of gradual evolution. Its “constitution”, as it were, would be a good subject for a future Cat Flag post, but for now, suffice it to say that it is based on centuries of laws, court rulings, scholarly texts considered to be “authoritative”, and plain old tradition.

The title of “Prime Minister” was originally a slang term for the minister who assumed the main leadership role on official policy within the British government, usually the First Lord of the Treasury. Indeed, as recently as 1829, the Home Secretary at the time said “nothing could be more mischievous or unconstitutional than to recognize in an act of Parliament the existence of such an office [as Prime Minister]”. Yet that’s exactly what Parliament did less than a century later in┬áthe Chequers Estate Act 1917, in order for the country estate named by that law to become the Prime Minister’s official country retreat.

The Prime Minister, like the other ministers serving in the British government, serves the Queen as her adviser, administrator, and liaison with Parliament. He is chosen by her and serves so long as he keeps her and Parliament happy. He isn’t even all that high-ranking; in the British order of precedence, the Prime Minister ranks 17th, behind the Archbishop of York.

Archbishop of York John Sentamu image by Iamwisesun

This guy outranks the Prime Minister.

Yet, in the great contradiction that is British politics, the Prime Minister is the one who actually runs the government of the United Kingdom. He is the boss of the British civil service, the most senior politician in Parliament, the leader of the political party in power (more on that in a moment), the architect of the British government’s foreign and domestic policy, and the public face of British politics.

The job of Prime Minister is just about the only one where you can tell your boss what to do and she does it. While the Queen could appoint whomever she likes to important political offices, she always appoints the person the Prime Minister wants in that role. The Queen summons and dismisses Parliament when he “advises” her to do so. The Queen signs treaties with foreign nations, but the Prime Minister is the one who dictates how the negotiations are to be handled to the Foreign Minister. The Queen is the Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and is the one who declares war, but the Minister of Defense, who manages the day-to-day running of the military and sets defense policy, reports to the Prime Minister.

So, how is the Prime Minister chosen? Again, the Queen could pick whomever she wants, but she always bases her decision on the outcome of the most recent Parliamentary election.

The House of Commons, the democratically elected part of the Parliament, is made up of 650 Members of Parliament or “MP’s” who represent local districts. The leaders of the major British political parties are always MP’s from a “safe” district that always votes for that party, and if one party commands an outright majority of all the seats in the House of Commons, the Queen picks the leader of that party to be her Prime Minister. If, however, no one political party has won a majority, then the Queen picks the party leader who can show her that he or she can get the “confidence” of the majority, usually by forming a coalition with one or more of the smaller parties to squeak over that “majority” threshold.

In this way, the Prime Minister is sort-of democratically accountable. If the people don’t like a Prime Minister, they will be more likely to vote for the other party at the next election. Not only that, but a Prime Minister can be dismissed by the House of Commons if they pass a “vote of no confidence” in his or her government. If that happens, the Queen gives the House 14 days to sort itself out, either through the Prime Minister regaining the House’s confidence or through the main opposition party’s leader showing he or she has the House’s confidence. If neither of these things happen, she calls for a new election.

What about contingency plans, though? What if something happens to the Prime Minister?

Well, while we haven’t seen too many vacancies at 10 Downing Street caused by a Prime Minister’s death, we have seen quite a few caused by a resignation. David Cameron stepped down as Prime Minister in 2016, and was succeeded by Theresa May. She stepped down last year, and that led to Boris Johnson taking the job.

Interestingly, all three of these Prime Ministers have been the head of the Conservative Party. Since the Conservatives have held the “confidence” of the House of Commons continuously during this time, the Queen automatically appointed the new leader of the party as the new Prime Minister in each of these instances. This meant the decision as to who would be the new Prime Minister was, for all practical intents and purposes, decided by the Conservatives through their own, internal leadership election. As we will recall from a recent Cat Flag, political party membership is quite rare outside the United States, and so it was that in the summer of 2019 the decision as to who would be the new Prime Minister of a nation of more than 67 million people was effectively decided by 139,318 voters.

At least in the case of a resignation, though, the current Prime Minister can stay in office for a few months while the party holds its election and decides on his or her replacement. Not so in the case of a death.

Yet there is no other procedure in the British political framework to replace a Prime Minister mid-term. There is no Vice-Prime Minister. There sometimes is a “Deputy Prime Minister”, but this is just an honorary title given to a minister in order to boost their prestige, often as a reward to the leader of a coalition party for supporting the Prime Minister’s party. Also, there isn’t currently a Deputy Prime Minister.

So, right now, while Boris Johnson recovers in the hospital, the next-most-senior minister, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, has taken over and is running the government as the United Kingdom deals with the pandemic emergency.

Dominic Raab image by Richard Townshend

Raab’s seniority is symbolized by the honorary title “First Secretary of State” indicating his status. Just as with “Deputy Prime Minister”, the title doesn’t inherently come with any responsibilities, as indicated by the fact that the official website of the United Kingdom’s government leaves the “Responsibilities” section on the page describing the office blank. Yet, it means that he is the second-highest-ranking minister, so it makes sense that he would step into this role so the government isn’t without a leader during a time of crisis.

It’s here where I’m going to start speculating. The world has changed since 1865, and no nation can go without proper leadership for an extended period of time, especially in a time of crisis. I think it is most likely that in this day and age, if a Prime Minister were to die in office, the Queen would probably name the First Secretary of State as a sort of interim Prime Minister until the majority party in the House of Commons can choose a new leader. However, if she were to do this, it would be the first time since the reign of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, that a British monarch had chosen a Prime Minister without consulting Parliament. Such a decision would probably be controversial.

However, it is possible that the case of the hospitalized Prime Minister might galvanize the British political system to finally put in place a proper contingency plan and set some rules as to what should happen in the case of a Prime Minister who dies in office.