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What happens if a prime minister loses his seat in a general election?

What happens if a prime minister loses his seat in a general election?
What happens if a prime minister loses his seat in a general election?


Two prime ministers are close to losing their seats. In December 1905, Arthur Balfour resigned as prime minister in an attempt to force an election, but the leader of the opposition, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, formed a government and became prime minister. Balfour lost his constituency at the election a month later. In the 1935 general election, Ramsay MacDonald was defeated, having resigned as head of the national government shortly before the campaign began.

Have leaders of other parties ever lost their seats?

Balfour was technically the first opposition leader in the 20th century to lose his seat at a general election. Herbert Asquith was the second to be defeated in 1918 and again in 1924 (after returning to parliament in the interim via a by-election in Paisley). In the 1931 election, Arthur Henderson, the leader of the Labor Party, lost his seat in the landslide victory of the National government led by his former party colleague Ramsay MacDonald. Since then, no opposition leader has lost his seat in a general election.

Leaders of smaller parties have lost their parliamentary seats 18 times since the beginning of the 20th century. The Liberal Party lost seven leaders between 1918 and 1979. The most recent example of the phenomenon came in 2019, when Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson failed to win re-election in East Dunbartonshire.

Can a prime minister stay in office if they lose their seat?

The first issue is whether the defeated prime minister's party is in a majority or clearly able to command the confidence of the Commons; or if another party is able to do so. If another party can and is invited to form a government, its leader would become prime minister, thus making the situation of the defeated prime minister moot.

But if the Prime Minister's defeated party still had a majority or could clearly command the confidence of the Commons and form a government, then three other factors come into play:

  • Can they stay as party leader?
  • Should a prime minister be a party leader?
  • Should the prime minister be a deputy?

Can a defeated prime minister remain the leader of their party?

The Conservative Party constitution states that the leader of the party “shall be drawn from those elected to Parliament”. Clause VII of the Rules of Procedure also states that its leader “shall be chosen from among the members of the Commons of the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party]Neither explicitly states that a leader who was no longer an MP would have to resign.

How party leadership rules are interpreted may depend on the level of support the defeated prime minister has among their MPs and party members. If a prime minister resigned as party leader, their party would have to hold a leadership election under its own rules (unless, in the Conservative Party, the 1922 Commons Committee decided there was only one candidate).

Among smaller parties, it is quite common for party leaders not to sit in the House of Commons. The leaders of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the DUP, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fin have all been elected in their respective devolved institutions. The two co-chairmen of the Green Party are not elected deputies.

Does the prime minister need to be the party leader?

The Cabinet Manual says a Prime Minister “will normally be the accepted leader of a political party commanding a majority in the House of Commons”, but does not say this has to be the case.

Should the prime minister be a deputy?

The process of appointing the prime minister assumes that he or she will sit in parliament, but there is nothing that says what happens if they cease to be an MP. The Prime Minister is a minister of the King. Precedent suggests that a prime minister should be an MP, but it does not suggest that they resign immediately if they lose their mandate.

The Cabinet Manual states that the Prime Minister always sits in the House of Commons. However, this is mostly related to the question of whether they should sit in the House of Commons rather than the House of Lords.

Although Prime Ministers regularly sat in the House of Lords in the 18th and 19th centuries, government by the Commons has been a convention since 1902. In 1963 Alec Douglas-Home resigned from his peers and entered the Commons through a by-election when became leader of the conservatives.

However, prime ministers are expected to respond to parliament through prime minister's questions, giving statements and appearing before the Liaison Committee. Therefore, it would not be sustainable for a prime minister to remain in office without being an MP indefinitely.

Can other defeated ministers stay in office?

Since no sitting prime minister has lost his seat in a general election, other ministers are the best source of constitutional precedent. It is rare for ministers, especially cabinet ministers, to lose their seats: 12 sitting ministers have lost their seats since 1974. In 11 cases, this happened during an election that brought a change of government – Chris Patten, in 1992 is an exception. When the election has a clear result, the defeated ministers resign immediately.

In the early days of a hung parliament, ministers remain in office without being MPs. In 2010, Jim Knight, then minister of state for employment and welfare reform at the Department for Work and Pensions, lost his seat at the election but stayed on at the DWP until the new government was formed. Similarly, after the 1974 general election, Gordon Campbell continued to serve for a week as secretary of state for Scotland, despite losing his seat in Moray and Nairn.




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