Relationship with Her Majesty's Government
Although it does not formally elect the prime minister, the position of the parties in the House of Commons is of overriding importance. By convention, the prime minister is answerable to, and must maintain the support of, the House of Commons. Thus, whenever the office of prime minister falls vacant, the Sovereign 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 Commons, 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 considered to remain so. 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 maximum term of five years. Subject to that limit, the prime minister could formerly choose the timing of the dissolution of parliament, with the permission of the Monarch. However, since the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, terms are now a fixed five years, and an early general election is brought about by a two-thirds majority in favour of a motion for a dissolution, or by a vote of no confidence that is not followed within fourteen days by a vote of confidence (which may be for confidence in the same government or a different one). By this second mechanism, the UK's government can change its political composition without an intervening general election. Only 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. The latter four were Jim Callaghan, John Major, Gordon Brown and the current Prime Minister Theresa May; these four inherited the office from Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron respectively. In such circumstances there may not even have been an internal party leadership election, as the new leader may be chosen by acclaim, having no electoral rival (as in the case of both Brown and May).
A prime minister will resign after party defeat at an election wherever unable to lead a coalition (including a supply and confidence arrangement). He or she may do after motions of no confidence/confidence and unprovoked such as for health reasons. In such a case, the premiership goes to whoever can command a majority in the House; unless there is a "Hung Parliament" (so coalition in the House of Commons) this will by convention be the new leader of the resignee's party. It has become the practice of writing the constitution of major UK political parties to provide a set way in which to appoint a new leader. Until 1965, the Conservative Party had no fixed mechanism for this; when in 1957 Anthony Eden resigned as PM without recommending a successor, it was unable to nominate one. It fell to the Queen to appoint Harold Macmillan as the new prime minister, after taking the consensus of cabinet ministers.
By convention, ministers are members of the House of Commons or 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). Exceptions include Peter Mandelson, appointed Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in October 2008 before his peerage. 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, thereby becoming Sir Alec Douglas-Home. The new session of Parliament was delayed to await the outcome of his by-election which happened to be underway from a recent death. As anticipated, he won the pending by-election which was for the highest-majority seat in Scotland among his party, else would have been constitutionally obliged to resign.
Since 1990, almost all ministers, save for three who 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, and David Young, Lord Young of Graffham, who was appointed Employment Secretary in 1985. The elected status of members of the Commons and being directly accountable to that House, as opposed to the unelected nature of members of the Lords, enables where coupled with empowerment and transparency, ministerial accountability. Responsible government is an international constitutional paradigm. The prime minister chooses the ministers, and may decide to remove them at any time; the formal appointment or dismissal, in formality, is made by the Sovereign.
The House of Commons formally scrutinises HM 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 occurs 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, the House of Commons' scrutiny of the Government 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, ministers and departments practice defensive government, outsourcing key work to third parties. In times of large majorities the constitution places no need or impetus to compromise with other parties apart from working in Select Committees for personal acclaim. Major modern British political parties tend to be so tightly orchestrated as to discourage room on most matters for free action by their MPs. 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 backbench 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.
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. The power of impeachment, however, 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.