Government of the United Kingdom

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The Government of the United Kingdom, officially known in the United Kingdom as Her Majesty's Government,[1] is the central government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.[2] It consists of those Ministers responsible for the conduct of national affairs, also known as the frontbench.[3]

The Government is led by the Prime Minister, who selects the other members of the Government. The Prime Minister and the other most senior Ministers belong to the supreme decision-making committee, known as the Cabinet.[2]

Under the UK constitution, executive authority lies with the monarch. This authority is exercised only by, or on the advice of, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.[4] The Cabinet members advise the monarch as members of the Privy Council. They also exercise power directly as leaders of the Government Departments.

The Government Ministers are usually all members of Parliament, and are accountable to it. The Government is dependent on Parliament to make primary legislation,[5] which means that in practice a government must seek re-election at least every five years.[6] The monarch selects the Prime Minister as the leader of the party most likely to command a majority in Parliament.[3]

The British Parliament utilises the Westminster System, a parliamentary democracy which remains to this day the most widely used system of politics in the world. Most nations that practice the Westminster System are Commonwealths or former Commonwealths of the Commonwealth of Nations

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 UK 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 the 12th of May between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Limits of Government power

HM 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

The Government Ministers are supported by 560,000[7] Civil Servants and other staff working in the 24 Ministerial Departments[8] and their executive agencies. There are also an additional 26 non-Ministerial Departments with a range of further responsibilities.

The Government in Parliament

A key principle of the UK constitution is that the Government is responsible to Parliament, this is called Responsible government.

Ministers 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.

In modern times the Prime Minister must always be an elected MP and therefore accountable to the House of Commons. In practice the Chancellor of the Exchequer must also always be a member of the Commons. The Lords have very limited powers in relation to money bills[9] and it would politically unacceptable for the budget speech to be given in the Lords, with MPs unable to directly question the Chancellor.

Under the UK 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 therefore 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[10] 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,[11] 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. Where 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 Commons.[12]

The Government and the Monarchy

The British Monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II is the United Kingdom's head of state but takes little direct part in government. The decisions to exercise sovereign powers are delegated from the Monarch, either by statute or by convention, to Ministers or officers of the Crown, or other public bodies, exclusive of the Monarch personally. Thus the acts of state done in the name of the Crown, such as Crown Appointments, even if personally performed by the Monarch, such as the Queen's Speech and the State Opening of Parliament, depend upon decisions made elsewhere: Legislative power is exercised by the Crown in Parliament, by and with the advice and consent of Parliament, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Executive power is exercised by Her Majesty's Government, which comprises Ministers, primarily the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, which is technically a committee of the Privy Council. They have the direction of the Armed Forces of the Crown, the Civil Service and other Crown Servants such as the Diplomatic and Secret Services (the Queen receives certain foreign intelligence reports before the Prime Minister does). Judicial power is vested in the Judiciary, who by constitution and statute have judicial independence of the Government The Church of England, of which the Monarch is the head, has its own legislative, judicial and executive structures. Powers independent of government are legally granted to other public bodies by statute or statutory instrument such as an Order-in-Council, Royal Commission or otherwise. Apart from members of parliament and local authorities, no public officers are elected.

According to the uncodified constitution of the United Kingdom, the monarch has the following powers:

  • The power to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister
  • The power to appoint and dismiss other Ministers
  • The power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament
  • The power to make war and peace
  • The power to command the armed forces of the United Kingdom
  • The power to issue passports
  • The power to appoint bishops and archbishops of the Church of England
  • The power to create life peers
  • The power to enact any Statute agreed in both the House of Commons and the Supreme Court (Royal Assent)
  • The power to dismiss Justices of the Supreme Court following signed, agreed petitions from both the House of Commons and the Supreme Court


The Prime Minister is based at 10 Downing Street in Westminster, which is also the location for Cabinet meetings. Most government departments have their headquarters nearby in Whitehall.

Devolved governments

Since 1998, certain areas of central government have been devolved to democratically-accountable governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. By contrast, there is no devolved government in England.

Local government

Refurbishment notice at Old Fire Station, Oxford, showing HM Government support.

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 exerciseable 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



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