Role and powers of the Prime Minister - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

7  Accountability to Parliament and the electorate

53. Linked to the issue of checks and balances is the question of whether the Prime Minister is sufficiently accountable personally to Parliament and to the electorate.

Accountability to Parliament

54. There are currently two formal mechanisms by which the House of Commons holds the Prime Minister to account: Prime Minister's Questions, and the Liaison Committee's oral evidence sessions with the Prime Minister.Our witnesses had a variety of views about the ways in which these mechanisms could be improved, and some suggestions for additional mechanisms.


55. The Prime Minister answers questions from Members of Parliament in the House of Commons every Wednesday for half an hour when the House is sitting.Prime Minister's Questions usually begin with an open question about the Prime Minister's engagements, and then the Member of Parliament who has asked this question follows it up with a supplementary question on any subject.Other Members of Parliament who have tabled the same questions about engagements (in practice all or nearly all of the questions are about engagements) are then called to ask an untabled supplementary question on any subject.By convention, the Leader of the Opposition is allowed to ask six questions.

56. A recent report by the Hansard Society, Tuned in or turned off: Public attitudes to Prime Minister's Questions,stated of Prime Minister's Questions:

    Its main virtue is that the Prime Minister must attend the House of Commons once a week when the House is sitting to answer questions for half an hour on any issue that Members wish to direct at him or her. In theory, this is one of the most important political mechanisms available to Parliament to hold the Executive to account. In practice, however, the Prime Minister is rarely subjected to a searching examination. Too many of the questions are planted by the party whips, the range of subjects covered is too broad to be anything but a shallow form of scrutiny, and the nature of the 'open question' means that the answer from a Prime Minister who has anything short of a photographic memory is almost guaranteed to be limited. There are occasions when an MP who wants a substantive response gives prior warning of their question in order to facilitate an informed answer but these are relatively rare.[68]

The Hansard Society suggested extending the length of Prime Minister's Questions to 45 minutes or an hour once a month, to facilitate "improved scrutiny and a more informed discussion".[69]It also stated: "One option [for reform] could be to introduce the departmental question time model to PMQs: a proportion of the questions listed for debate are closed questions (around three quarters for most departmental question sessions) with the remainder being open, topical questions."[70]

57. Some of our witnesses made similar points to the Hansard Society.Professor Theakston and Dr Heppell commented of Prime Minister's Questions:

    The modern media spotlight contributes to the extremely adversarial and gladiatorial nature of the confrontations. As a test of nerve, personality-under-pressure, and verbal dexterity it could hardly be bettered. But the political theatre and knock-about carries a price in terms of substance and questioning in depth... Proposals to lengthen PMQs to 45 or 60 minutes, perhaps to return to two sessions a week, and to make it more of a backbench institution would be worth serious consideration.

Dr Heffernan described Prime Minister's Questions as "necessary but not sufficient."[71]He suggested that "PMQs could be extended to an hour each week with MPs entitled to ask follow up questions and not confine themselves to their own particular question".[72]Professor Richard Toye, of the University of Exeter, suggested that there should be a return to bi-weekly sessions of Prime Minister's Questions.[73]


58. The Liaison Committee—a Committee composed of the 33 Chairs of House of Commons Select Committees—holds regular oral evidence with the Prime Minister "on matters of public policy".[74]The sessions take place two or three times a year. This practice began in 2002, after the then Prime Minister Rt Hon Tony Blair MP contacted the then Chair of the Liaison Committee to propose it.

59. On the Liaison Committee's evidence sessions with the Prime Minister, Professor Theakston and Dr Heppell state:

    Some journalists have mocked them as "bore-a-thons" that do not leave "blood on the carpet", but that is almost the point and it makes for productive and informative exchanges. But these are only twice-yearly events and it is arguable that more frequent sessions would be of value. If the Prime Minister were also to face questioning by an equivalent Lords select committee, an extra dimension of accountability and expert scrutiny might be added.[75]

60. Dan Corry, formerly head of the Policy Unit at Downing Street, described the Liaison Committee as "potentially a great innovation."He stated:

    Certainly in my experience the PM take it very seriously, spending some time getting briefed up on a whole range of issues.

    However, usually the PM is well able to handle the actual meetings as there are too many topics and questioners to really allow detailed follow-up of particular issues.In one way or another this needs to be resolved if the Committee is to be more effective in holding the PM to account.[76]

Dr Heffernan commented:

    The Liaison Committee is a good development, but it is difficult having 25 or so people asking questions of the Prime Minister.Perhaps you could have a smaller group; perhaps you could have anonymised questions from Members of Parliament that are then presented to the Prime Minister in a formal situation like the Liaison Committee.[77]

61. The Liaison Committee itself has made some attempts to address what others have pointed to as the defects in its questioning of the Prime Minister.In its report on Select Committee effectiveness, resources and powers it listed as one of its draft objectives: "To increase the effectiveness of our own evidence sessions with the Prime Minister."[78]Recent evidence sessions have focused on a narrower range of topics and have involved a limited number of Members of Parliament asking the questions, rather than the whole Committee.Its latest oral evidence session, on 13 May 2014, involved 10 of the 33 members of the Committee and focused on two themes: migration, and foreign affairs issues relating to Ukraine and Syria.

62. The Liaison Committee has the potential to be a very effective mechanism by which Parliament can hold the Prime Minister to account.We commend the attempts it has made to narrow the range of topics it discusses at any one session, and to limit the number of questioners to enable the questioning to be more thorough and detailed.We hope that these efforts continue.The fewer the topics, and the questioners, the more in-depth and serious the scrutiny will become—a welcome balance to the superficial nature of Prime Minister's Questions.


63. The Cabinet Manual states: "The Prime Minister will normally be the accepted leader of a political party that commands the majority of the House of Commons…The Prime Minister accepts office at a private audience with the Sovereign, at which time the appointment takes effect."[79]Although Prime Ministersneed the support of the majority of the House of Commons in order to function effectively, there is no formal process by which the House of Commons directly endorses the Prime Minister.It could be argued that the Prime Minister gets his or her democratic legitimacy from elected MPs—the House of Commons in this view could be seen as a form of electoral college to legitimise the Prime Minister, but one which does not officially meet for this purpose—and that that should be formally recognised by a proper parliamentary process.Dr Heffernan commented that it would be "highly desirable for the appointment of the Prime Minister to be subject to a formal recorded vote of the House of Commons at the beginning of each parliamentary session (or, should the party leader be changed in the middle of the parliamentary session, at that time too)."He stated:

    This would impinge on the Sovereign's present prerogative, but it would empower the House of Commons vis a vis the Prime Minister by formally demonstrating that he or she only serves at the behest of the Commons. The Sovereign could then appoint the Prime Minister once the Commons had nominated him or her. This could also, following a change of government at an election, have the agreeable effect of improving our hasty, improvised means of transition by extending the period of governmental handover by creating the temporary posts of acting Prime Minister (the outgoing one) and Prime Minister designate (the incoming one).[80]

64. Professor Theakston and Dr Heppell also suggested that the House of Commons should have a formal role in the appointment of Prime Ministers:

    It is striking that in the fifteen mid-term successions—changes of Prime Minister mid-parliament—since 1902 in only one case (that of Churchill succeeding Chamberlain in 1940) was there an immediate confidence vote in the House on the formation of the new government. We would support the introduction of the practice of a formal Commons investiture vote for Prime Ministers following a general election and on a mid-term succession in Number 10. The Monarch's prerogative power to appoint the Prime Minister would remain, but the House of Commons would nominate or recommend who should be appointed.[81]

65. Dan Corry described an investiture vote as "a really interesting idea".He added:

    What worries me about it is that while it is making clear the truth in our unwritten constitution, that the Prime Minister is elected by the MPs as the person who commands the House, I don't think that is what the public think.The public think they vote for the Prime Minister.I know they don't actually, they vote for their local MP.[82]

He stated:

    If the public, having watched leader debates, seen many posters featuring the party leaders and so on, then discover that though they have voted for X as PM (even if in fact voting for their own local MP) they might be faced with a different character as PM, they would go wild. This may be a shame, but the media and public reaction to PM Brown not having been voted in by the public (when in fact he did not have to be), shows where we stand on this in reality.[83]

It is difficult to imagine circumstances in which, after a general election, the House of Commons would not vote to support the leader of the party that had a majority in the Commons or the leader of the largest party in a coalition government.A mid-term change of Prime Minister, though, would certainly involve the Commons voting on a Prime Minister for whom the public did not feel that they had voted.We address the question of whether the public should be able directly to elect the Prime Minister later in our report.

66. The House of Lords Constitution Committee discussed an investiture vote for the Prime Minister in its recent report on Constitutional implications of coalition government.It did not recommend the creation of a vote, stating that it would be "a step away from the principle that the Government as a whole should command the confidence of the House of Commons."[84]However, it noted that a similar vote already takes place in the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales:

    Similar processes are already followed in Scotland and Wales. After an election to the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales the Parliament or the Assembly has 28 days to nominate someone as the First Minister. The person so nominated is recommended to Her Majesty by the relevant Presiding Officer. Failure to nominate a First Minister within the 28 days results in another election.[85]

67. It would be perfectly possible for there be an investiture vote in the House of Commons following a mid-term change of Prime Minister.The vote would result in a clearer line of accountability and would make it explicit that the Prime Minister commands the confidence of the majority of the House of Commons.

68. Similarly it would be feasible for proposals be developed for an investiture vote for the Prime Minister within a specified time period after a general election.This would require the creation of the post of "Prime Minister Designate".The Prime Minister Designate would be able to perform all the main functions of the Prime Minister, including appointing Ministers and instructing civil servants, but would not take the title of Prime Minister until he or she had been confirmed in the post by a vote in the House of Commons and subsequently appointed to the post by the monarch.

69. We request that the Government consider if and how Parliament could be involved in the investiture of the Prime Minister, or the Government, after the general election of Members of Parliament.

Accountability to the electorate

70. In democracies in which the leading political figure is directly elected by the people, the office has a separate legitimacy from the legislature, which is charged with holding the executive to account.

71. Those witnesses who discussed the Prime Minister's accountability to the electorate focused on the accountability provided by general elections.Dr Nicholas Allen stated: "Given that the Prime Minister leads a team of party politicians that stand for re-election every four or five years, there is, I think, sufficient electoral accountability."[86]

72. As Dan Corry noted, some of the public may feel that they are voting for the Prime Minister in a general election, but they are in fact voting for their local Member of Parliament, and although the cumulative choices of all voters will ultimately play a decisive part in who is the Prime Minister, it is a very different thing from individual members of the public being able to vote for the Prime Minister directly.It could be argued that the post of Prime Minister has no direct electoral legitimacy of its own and thus legitimacy has to be borrowed from control of the legislature, which has legitimacy because it is elected.Dr O'Malley commented:

    An argument might be made that if power is personalised into a single figure then accountability should be personalised into that figure. The electorate has no way of holding a Prime Minister directly accountable, but it can hold the government to account through parliamentary elections.[87]

73. Professor Foley said:

    I am thinking that we are in a different kind of landscape, insofar as you have increasing prime ministerial pre-eminence but it is based on the notion of national and popular leadership. How do you bring this in line with the British constitution? One way you could do that is direct election of the Prime Minister. That is very radical, of course, but you could make a claim that that is bringing it into line with the position the Prime Ministers hold. You could claim that there is insufficient accountability of prime ministerial power without direct elections.[88]

74. Professor Pryce supported the direct election of the Prime Minister by the public, stating: "I would like it to be done here as a way of ensuring a more accountable Prime Minister."[89]She added: "most of us are electing MPs in safe seats, so you don't have a check as an individual voter.But you would if you were voting for a Prime Minister, wouldn't you?"[90]Having direct elections for the Prime Minister would mean that the Prime Minister might not be the leader of the party that commanded a majority in the House of Commons, but Professor Pryce did not see this as a difficulty: "Prime Ministers would be, in a sense, very like an American President.They would be forced to negotiate with other people within Parliament to build a coalition of support."[91]

75. Several of those who were opposed to the idea of a directly elected Prime Minister pointed to the example of Israel, which, at the end of the last century,briefly introduced direct elections for its Prime Minister.Dr Bennister commented:

    The main reason I would urge some caution is the example of Israel…From 1996 to 2001 they had direct elections for the Prime Minister, but it is interesting to note in the case of Israel that it was mainly to enhance the power of the Prime Minister, who had become weak. It was not to try to confirm what already existed. It was also to try to reduce the number of parties in the Knesset, and it had the opposite effect in both cases. It made the power of the Prime Minister even weaker by meaning the Prime Minister had to draw on a Government of a different political persuasion, which really struggled to get its legislation through and, rather than reducing the number of parties, it increased the number of parties because the electorate were happy to split ticket and vote for different parties. I think there would be a lot of potential negative effects. Split ticketing, governability—there could be problems with governability—and negative public opinion are consequences. If we look at Israel, the public were very much in favour of direct elections for the Prime Minister but within a couple of years public opinion had swung the other way.[92]

76. Professor Paul Webb, of the University of Sussex, who discussed the Israeli example in detail in his written evidence, and said that the Prime Minister should "emphatically not" be directly elected by the British people, stated:

    In general terms, the separation of powers tends to expand the independence, not the compliance of the legislature.When backbench parliamentarians do not feel fear to bring down the executive by voting against their leader's wishes, they are more likely to feel free to rebel.While some might regard such a development as healthy for democracy, it should be remembered that there is a price to be paid: governments can find it harder to pilot their legislative programmes through Parliament, a situation which may lead to allegations of ungovernability and 'gridlock'.In the long run, voters are unlikely to be impressed by such developments.Therefore, while the expectation is that a directly elected premier under 'divided government' should seek to build legislative coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis, as the US President does, it would probably be advisable to furnish the head of the executive with the right to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections, in order to avoid the risk of political immobilisation.[93]

77. Currently, the House of Commons is directly elected by the people but the chief of the executive—the Prime Minister—is not.Instead, he or she is indirectly accountable to the public through the mechanism of general elections.Many would regard this as sufficient, but some have argued that accountability would be strengthened by the direct election of the Prime Minister by the public.Such a move would create a very different political system in the United Kingdom, and could contribute to a clearer separation of powers. The Prime Minister would still need to command the support of the majority of Members of Parliament in the legislature in order to pass legislation.Although the Prime Minister is unlikely to be directly elected in the near future, we ask the Government in its response to put on the record its position on allowing the people to elect directly the UK's senior political figure.

68   Hansard Society, Tuned in or turned off: Public attitudes to Prime Minister's Questions, 2014, p 48 Back

69   Tuned in or turned off, p 51 Back

70   Tuned in or turned off, p 51 Back

71   Q311 Back

72   Dr Richard Heffernan written evidence Back

73   Professor Richard Toye written evidence Back

74   Standing Orders of the House of Commons: Public Business, 2013, 145(2) Back

75   Professor Kevin Theakston and Dr Timothy Heppell written evidence Back

76   Dan Corry written evidence Back

77   Q310 Back

78   Liaison Committee, Second Report of the 2012-13 Session, Select Committee effectiveness, resources and powers, HC 697, Annex A Back

79   The Cabinet Manual, paras 3.1-3.2 Back

80   Dr Richard Heffernan written evidence Back

81   Professor Kevin Theakston and Dr Timothy Heppell written evidence Back

82   Q153 Back

83   Dan Corry written evidence Back

84   House of Lords Constitution Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2013-14, Constitutional implications of coalition government, HL Paper 130, para 52 Back

85   Constitutional implications of coalition government, para 46 Back

86   Dr Nicholas Allen written evidence Back

87   Dr Eoin O'Malley written evidence Back

88   Q113 Back

89   Q12 Back

90   Q46 Back

91   Q13 Back

92   Q82 Back

93   Professor Paul Webb written evidence Back

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Prepared 24 June 2014