Relationship with Her Majesty's Government
Although the House of Commons does not formally elect the prime minister, the position of the parties in the House is of overriding importance. By convention, the prime minister is answerable to the House, and therefore must maintain its support. Thus, whenever the office of prime minister falls vacant, the monarch appoints the person who has the support of the House, or who is most likely to command the support of the House—normally the leader of the largest party in the House—while the leader of the second-largest party becomes the Leader of the Opposition. Since 1963, by convention, the prime minister is always a member of the House of Commons, rather than the House of Lords.
The Commons may indicate its lack of support for the Government by rejecting a motion of confidence or by passing a motion of no confidence. Confidence and no confidence motions are phrased explicitly: for instance, "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government." Many other motions were until recent decades considered confidence issues, even though not explicitly phrased as such: in particular, important bills that were part of the Government's agenda. The annual Budget is still considered a matter of confidence. When a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the prime minister is obliged either to resign, making way for another MP who can command confidence, or to request the monarch to dissolve Parliament, thereby precipitating a general election.
Parliament normally sits for a term of five years. Before 2011, this was a maximum: the prime minister could, and often did, choose an earlier time to dissolve parliament, with the permission of the monarch. Since the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the term has been fixed at five years. However, an early general election can be brought about by a two-thirds majority in favour of dissolution, or by a vote of no confidence in the government that is not followed within fourteen days by a vote of confidence (which may be for confidence in the same government or in a different one). By the second of these mechanisms, the UK's government can change its political composition without an intervening general election. As at 7 July 2019, four of the eight last prime ministers have attained office as the immediate result of a general election; the others have gained office upon the resignation of a prime minister of their own party.
A prime minister will resign after party defeat at an election if unable to form a coalition, or obtain a confidence and supply arrangement. She or he may also resign after a motion of no confidence in the prime minister or for personal reasons. In such cases, the premiership goes to whoever can command a majority in the House, unless there is a hung parliament and a coalition is formed; the new prime minister will by convention be the new leader of the resigner's party. It has become the practice to write the constitutions of major UK political parties to provide a set way in which to appoint a new party leader.
Peers as ministers
By convention, ministers are members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. A handful have been appointed who were outside Parliament, but in most cases they then entered Parliament in a by-election or by receiving a peerage (being made a life peer). Since 1902, all prime ministers have been members of the Commons; the sole exception was during the long summer recess in 1963: the 14th Earl of Home disclaimed his peerage (under a new mechanism which remains in force) three days after becoming prime minister, and became Sir Alec Douglas-Home. The new session of Parliament was delayed to await the outcome of his by-election, which happened to be already under way due to a recent death. As anticipated, he won that election, which was for the highest-majority seat in Scotland among his party; otherwise he would have been constitutionally obliged to resign.
Since 1990, almost all ministers, save for three whose offices are an intrinsic part of the House of Lords, have belonged to the Commons.
Few major cabinet positions (except Lord Privy Seal, Lord Chancellor and Leader of the House of Lords) have been filled by a peer in recent times. Notable exceptions are Peter Carington, 6th Lord Carrington, who served as Foreign Secretary from 1979 to 1982; David Young, Lord Young of Graffham, who was appointed Employment Secretary in 1985; Lord Mandelson, who served as Business Secretary; Lord Adonis, who served as Transport Secretary; and Baroness Amos, who served as International Development Secretary. The elected status of members of the Commons (as opposed to the unelected Lords) and their direct accountability to that House, together with empowerment and transparency, ensures ministerial accountability. Responsible government is an international constitutional paradigm. The prime minister chooses the ministers, and may decide to remove them at any time, although the appointments and dismissals are formally made by the Sovereign.
Scrutiny of the government
The House of Commons formally scrutinises the Government through its Committees and Prime Minister's Questions, when members ask questions of the prime minister; the House gives other opportunities to question other cabinet ministers. Prime Minister's Questions occur weekly, normally for half an hour each Wednesday. Questions must relate to the responding minister's official government activities, not to his or her activities as a party leader or as a private Member of Parliament. Customarily, members of the Government party/coalition and members of the Opposition alternate when asking questions. Members may also make inquiries in writing.
In practice, this scrutiny can be fairly weak. Since the first-past-the-post electoral system is employed, the governing party often enjoys a large majority in the Commons, and ministers and departments practise defensive government, outsourcing key work to third parties. If the government has a large majority, it has no need or incentive to compromise with other parties, apart from working in Select Committees for personal acclaimbackbench MPs often forces governments to make concessions (under the Coalition, over foundation hospitals and under Labour over top-up fees and compensation for failed company pension schemes). Occasionally Government bills are defeated by backbench rebellions (Terrorism Act 2006). However, the scrutiny provided by the Select Committees is more serious.
. Major modern British political parties tend to be so tightly orchestrated that their MPs often have little scope for free action. A large minority of ruling party MPs are paid members of the Government. Since 1900 the Government has lost confidence motions three times — twice in 1924, and once in 1979. However, the threat of rebellions by their own party's
The House of Commons technically retains the power to impeach Ministers of the Crown (or any other subject, even if not a public officer) for their crimes. Impeachments are tried by the House of Lords, where a simple majority is necessary to convict. But this power has fallen into disuse: the House of Commons exercises its checks on the government through other means, such as no confidence motions; the last impeachment was that of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville in 1806.
Bills may be introduced in either house, though bills of importance generally originate in the House of Commons. The supremacy of the Commons in legislative matters is assured by the Parliament Acts, under which certain types of bills may be presented to the Queen for Royal Assent without the consent of the House of Lords. The Lords may not delay a money bill (a bill that, in the view of the Speaker of the House of Commons, solely concerns national taxation or public funds) for more than one month. Moreover, the Lords may not delay most other public bills for more than two parliamentary sessions, or one calendar year. These provisions, however, only apply to public bills that originate in the House of Commons. Moreover, a bill that seeks to extend a parliamentary term beyond five years requires the consent of the House of Lords.
By a custom that prevailed even before the Parliament Acts, only the House of Commons may originate bills concerning taxation or Supply. Furthermore, supply bills passed by the House of Commons are immune to amendments in the House of Lords. In addition, the House of Lords is barred from amending a bill so as to insert a taxation or supply-related provision, but the House of Commons often waives its privileges and allows the Lords to make amendments with financial implications. Under a separate convention, known as the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords does not seek to oppose legislation promised in the Government's election manifesto. Hence, as the power of the House of Lords has been severely curtailed by statute and by practice, the House of Commons is clearly the more powerful chamber of Parliament.