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British Government

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British Government

For the term "Her Britannic Majesty's Government", see Her Majesty's Government (term).
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Her Majesty's Government,[1] commonly referred to as HM Government (HMG), the British Government or Whitehall (where most of its departments are located), is the central government of the United Kingdom.[2]

The Government is led by the Prime Minister, who selects all the remaining Ministers. The Prime Minister and the other most senior Ministers belong to the supreme decision-making committee, known as the Cabinet.[2] The Government Ministers are all members of Parliament, and are accountable to it. The Government is dependent on Parliament to make primary legislation,[3] which means that in practice a government must seek re-election at least every five years.[4] The monarch selects as Prime Minister the leader of the party most likely to command a majority in Parliament.[5]

Under the uncodified British constitution, executive authority lies with the monarch, although this authority is exercised only by, or on the advice of, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.[6] The Cabinet members advise the monarch as members of the Privy Council. They also exercise power directly as leaders of the Government Departments.

The current Prime Minister is David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, who was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II on 11 May 2010 following the General Election on 6 May 2010. The election failed to provide a decisive result, with the Conservatives as the biggest party within a hung parliament. A coalition government was formed on 12 May between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (see Cameron ministry).

Government in Parliament

A key principle of the British Constitution is that the Government is responsible to Parliament. This is called responsible government.

Ministers of the Crown are responsible to the House in which they sit, they make statements in that House and take questions from members of that House. For most senior Ministers this is usually the elected House of Commons rather than the House of Lords. There have been some recent exceptions to this, for example cabinet ministers Lord Mandelson (First Secretary of State) and Lord Adonis (Secretary of State for Transport) sat in the Lords and were responsible to that House during the government of Gordon Brown.

Since the commencement of the reign of Edward VII the Prime Minister has always been an elected member of Parliament (MP) and therefore accountable to the House of Commons. The Lords have very limited powers in relation to money bills and, for this reason, it would be likely be politically unacceptable for the budget speech to be given in the Lords, with MPs unable to directly question the Chancellor. The last Chancellor of the Exchequer to be a member of the House of Lords was Lord Thomas Denman (who served as interim Chancellor of the Exchequer in November 1834).[7]

Under the British system the Government is required by convention and for practical reasons to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. It requires the support of the House of Commons for the maintenance of supply (by voting through the government's budgets) and in order to pass primary legislation. By convention if a government loses the confidence of the House of Commons it must either resign or a General Election is held. The support of the Lords, while useful to the government in getting its legislation passed without delay, is not vital. A government is not required to resign even if it loses the confidence of the Lords and is defeated in key votes in that House. The House of Commons is thus the responsible House.

The Prime Minister is held to account during Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs) which provides an opportunity for MPs from all parties to question the PM on any subject. There are also departmental questions where Ministers answer questions relating to their specific departmental brief. Unlike PMQs both the cabinet ministers for the department and junior ministers within the department may answer on behalf of the government depending on the topic of the question.

During debates on government legislation Ministers, usually with departmental responsibility for the bill, will lead the debate for the government and respond to points made by MPs or Lords.

Committees[8] of both the House of Commons and House of Lords hold the government to account, scrutinise its work and examine in detail proposals for legislation. Ministers appear before committees to give evidence and answer questions.

Government Ministers are also required by convention and the Ministerial Code,[9] when Parliament is sitting, to make major statements regarding government policy or issues of national importance to Parliament. This allows MPs or Lords to question the government on the statement. When the government instead chooses to make announcements first outside Parliament, it is often the subject of significant criticism from MPs and the Speaker of the House of Commons.[10]

Government and the Crown

Main article: Royal Prerogative in the United Kingdom

The British Monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of state but not the head of government.

The Queen takes little direct part in governing the country, and must remain strictly neutral in political affairs. However, the legal authority of the state that is vested in the Sovereign and known as the Crown remains the source of the executive power used by the Government.

In addition to explicit statutory authority in many areas, the Crown also possesses a body of powers known as the Royal Prerogative, which can be used for a vast number of purposes, from the issue or withdrawal of passports to declaring war. By longstanding custom, most of these powers are delegated from the Sovereign to various ministers or other officers of the Crown, who may use them without having to obtain the consent of Parliament.

The head of Her Majesty’s Government, the Prime Minister, also has weekly meetings with the monarch, where she "has a right and a duty to express her views on Government matters. . . . These meetings, as with all communications between The Queen and her Government, remain strictly confidential. Having expressed her views, The Queen abides by the advice of her ministers.".[11]

Royal Prerogative powers include the following:

Domestic powers

  • The power to dismiss and appoint a Prime Minister. This power is exercised by the Monarch herself. By strong convention she must appoint the individual most capable of commanding a majority in the House of Commons.[12]
  • The power to dismiss and appoint other ministers. This power is exercised by the Prime Minister alone.
  • The power to grant Royal Assent to bills, making them valid laws.[13] This is exercised by the Monarch, who also theoretically has the power to refuse assent, although no Monarch has refused assent to a bill passed by Parliament since Queen Anne in 1708.
  • The power to commission officers in the Armed Forces
  • The power to command the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom. This power is exercised by the Defence Council in the Queen's name.
  • The power to appoint members to the Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council [14]
  • The power to issue and withdraw passports. This is exercised by the Home Secretary.
  • The power to grant Prerogative of mercy (though capital punishment is abolished, this power is still used to remedy errors in sentence calculation)
  • The power to grant honours [15]
  • The power to create corporations via Royal Charter

Foreign powers

Even though the United Kingdom has no single constitution document, in October 2003, in order to increase transparency, the Government published the above list as some of the powers exercised in the name of the Monarch and which are part of the Royal Prerogative.[17] However, the complete extent of the Royal Prerogative powers, many of them originating in ancient custom and the period of absolute monarchy, or modified by later constitutional practice, has never been fully described.

Limits of Government power

The Government's powers include general executive and statutory powers, delegated legislation, and numerous powers of appointment and patronage; however, some powerful officials and bodies, (e.g. HM Judges, Local Authorities, and the Charity Commission) are legally more or less independent of the Government, and Government powers are legally limited to those retained by the Crown under Common Law or granted and limited by Act of Parliament, and are subject to European Community law; both substantive and procedural limitations are enforceable in the Courts by judicial review.

Government departments

Government ministers are supported by 560,000[18] Civil Servants and other staff working in the 24 Ministerial Departments[19] and their executive agencies. There are also an additional 26 non-Ministerial Departments with a range of further responsibilities.


The Prime Minister is based at 10 Downing Street in Westminster, London. Cabinet meetings also take place here. Most government departments have their headquarters nearby in Whitehall.

Devolved governments

Main article: Devolution in the United Kingdom

Since 1998, certain areas of central government have been devolved to democratically accountable governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These are not part of Her Majesty's Government, and are accountable to their own democratic institutions, with their own authority under the Crown. By contrast, there is no devolved government in England.

Local government

Up to three layers of elected local authorities (such as County, District and Parish Councils) exist throughout all parts of the United Kingdom, in some places merged into Unitary Authorities. They have limited local tax-raising powers. Many other authorities and agencies also have statutory powers, generally subject to some central government supervision. In addition to legislative powers, HM Government has substantial influence over local and other authorities by financial powers and grants.

See also


External links

  • GOV.UK, the UK government website
  • 10 Downing Street
  • UK Government list of ministers from GOV.UK
  • How Government works overview from GOV.UK
  • Reconstitution, website of a charitable trust founded to promote public understanding of the British Constitution
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