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The Institution of Prime Minister

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“How the power of Prime Ministry grew up into its present form it is difficult to trace precisely.”

In 1841 a former Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne, explained the above to Queen Victoria. Details of the lives of individual Prime Ministers have been recounted in numerous biographical studies, but less is known about the history of the premiership as an institution. This article provides an historical overview of how the British Prime Minister’s Office came into being, its subsequent development and the staff attached to it.

Sir Robert Walpole and the origins of the premiership

The so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 helped produce a new power-balance within the English constitution. Monarchs became more dependent upon Parliament to obtain tax revenues and pursue their favoured policies, while the House of Commons was establishing its dominance over the House of Lords. This changed constitutional structure created a potential opening for a politician who could deliver control of Parliament for the monarch. One man in particular, operating from the position of a Member of the Commons, not the Lords, managed to exploit this opportunity: Sir Robert Walpole.

The title ‘prime minister’ was originally a term of abuse rather than a description of an official role. It implied that an individual subject had risen improperly above others within the royal circle, and had echoes of a political institution imported from France, England’s great enemy. When Robert Harley, a favourite of Queen Anne (1702-1714), was impeached in 1715, one of the charges against him was that he was a prime minister. The prevailing view at this time was that monarchs should be their own prime ministers.

The historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote that Walpole was ‘as much the first modern Prime Minister we should recognize as Adam was the first man’. Walpole had a long tenure as First Lord of the Treasury (1721-1742) and became the dominant figure within government from around 1730. His ability to carry crown business through Parliament ensured the support of first George I and, from 1727, George II. Their backing enabled Walpole to influence official appointments and gave him access to money, both of which could be traded for support in Parliament. He exerted further influence over public business by avoiding the use of the large, full Cabinet of around a dozen senior figures for serious business, preferring to operate with an inner circle of five or fewer key supporters. Moreover, through his control of the Treasury Walpole was able to extend his power throughout the country and help ensure that parliamentary elections – in which only a tiny proportion of men (and no women) could then  vote – produced the desired outcome.

However, the idea of an official office of Prime Minister remained taboo. In 1741, when the nature of his government was under attack, Walpole told the Commons

“I unequivocally deny that I am sole and prime minister.”

A controversial public figure, he was targeted by a literary grouping whose members – including John Gay, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift – labelled themselves the ‘Scriblerus Club’. In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels Walpole was parodied as ‘Flimnap, the Treasurer’; while in Gay’s musical play the Beggar’s Opera, a highwayman character, Robin of Bagshot, had aliases including ‘Bob Booty’ – a nickname which became attached to Walpole, playing on his reputation for corruption. There was an attempt to impeach Walpole after his fall from power in 1742, but the parliamentary ‘Committee of Secrecy’ set up to investigate his financial activities could not construct a case against him.  As later became the norm for Prime Ministers, the ultimate sanction deployed against him was not legal, but political: removal from office.

The institution of Prime Minister is entrenched

In the decades that followed the fall of Walpole it was not always clear whether there was a Prime Minister at any given time, because the post was not yet firmly established in practice nor officially recognised. But other political leaders built upon the methods Walpole pioneered, usually acting in the role of Prime Minister while officially holding the post of First Lord of the Treasury, as he had. From the late-eighteenth century the office of Prime Minister gradually became accepted and then entrenched as a permanent fixture of British government.

In 1778, during the American War of Independence, the Prime Minister Lord North wrote to George III that: ‘in critical times, it is necessary that there should be one directing Minister’. In 1803, during the gap between his two premierships, William Pitt the Younger told Lord Melville of the need for an ‘avowed and real Minister, possessing the chief weight in the Council, and the principal place in the confidence of the King’. By 1805 The Times newspaper was beginning to use the phrase ‘Prime Minister’ in this sense and around this time it began to be employed in parliamentary debates.

The office of Prime Minister was widely accepted as a political reality by the mid-nineteenth century. But official acknowledgement of this development was slower to take place. In 1878 William Gladstone – who served as Prime Minister on four separate occasions – remarked:

‘upon the whole, nowhere in the wide world does so great a substance cast so small a shadow; nowhere is there a man who has so much power, with so little to show for it in the way of formal title or prerogative’.

Yet in the same year a significant development occurred when Benjamin Disraeli used the term ‘Prime Minister’ when signing the Treaty of Berlin. The list of government ministers printed in Hansard, the official record of parliamentary debates, seems to have first used the title Prime Minister in 1885. An early internal reference to the Prime Minister was included in the minutes of the first meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1902. The 1904 edition of the Imperial Calendar (the predecessor to the Civil Service Yearbook) referred to Arthur Balfour as ‘Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury’; in the previous edition he was merely ‘First Lord of the Treasury and Lord Privy Seal’. Then in December 1905 the Prime Minister was granted a place in the official order of precedence. The first statutory reference to the Prime Minister came in the Chequers Estate Act 1917, which specified Chequers as a prime-ministerial residence. Public recognition of the existence of a ‘Prime Minister’s Office’ in the Civil Service Yearbook came as recently as the 1977 edition.

The British premiership has gradually taken on a more official existence over the last three centuries, but remains largely informal in character, with many of its powers matters of convention rather than law. In the words of the Cabinet Manual, published in October 2011, ‘The Prime Minister has few statutory functions but will usually take the lead on significant matters of state’. Where once the very existence of the premiership was a subject of controversy, more recently the manner in which the office is used has become the main focus of discussion.

Turning points and phases

In 1974 Robert (Lord) Blake, Oxford academic and biographer of Benjamin Disraeli, identified three ‘turning points’ in the history of the premiership. The first came in 1782–1784 with a ‘change…from a monarch who was the real head of the executive, an active political force concerned with the day-to-day issues of government to a monarch with a veto – the right to dismiss the Prime Minister and so the right to prevent the implementation of policies he disliked’. The second and most significant change was the shift ‘from the King’s government to party government’ which became apparent in 1834–1835. Third was a movement from ‘government by parties based on parliament to government by parties based on nation-wide organizations’, which began with the expansions in the franchise by the reform acts of 1867 and 1884.

Subsequent key moments in the office have been identified by the historian Peter (Lord) Hennessy. They include:

  • 1870: the Prime Minister acquires the sole right to call Cabinet meetings;
  • 1881: ‘Questions to the PM’ are introduced in Parliament, an ancestor of today’s weekly ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’;
  • 1903: The establishment of the Prime Minister’s absolute right to remove ministers from office; and
  • 1918: the Prime Minister gains from the Cabinet as a whole the right to request the dissolution of Parliament by the monarch, triggering a general election.

It is also possible to identify at least two longer historical phases in the history of the premiership. The first ran from the early-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Nearly all Prime Ministers have held the post of First Lord of the Treasury. Until the mid-nineteenth century this role involved direct control of the Treasury and responsibility for financial policy. If First Lords sat in the Commons, they combined this office with that of Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1803 William Pitt the Younger saw it as natural that the first minister should

“be the person at the head of the finances.”

During this first stage Prime Ministers were also departmental ministers who used their Treasury power-base to achieve control over government.

The start of the second phase can be traced to a decision made by Sir Robert Peel, when he became Prime Minister for the second time in 1841. Peel delegated day-to-day oversight of Treasury business to a separate Chancellor of the Exchequer. Holders of this post came to be important figures within government in their own right. The long-term consequence of this arrangement was to cut off the premiership from this departmental function. It was now more focused on overall government coordination and leadership, particularly through the Prime Minister’s role as chair of the Cabinet. Cabinet had origins in the late-seventeenth century and by the mid-nineteenth century established itself as the supreme collective decision-making body within government.

A dominant office?

From Walpole’s time onwards observers have frequently accused either individual Prime Ministers or the office itself of excessive dominance within government. In 1806 the incoming Prime Minister, Lord Grenville, described his immediate predecessor, William Pitt the Younger, as having led

‘a Cabinet of cyphers and a government of one man alone…[a] wretched system’.

One critic of the Duke of Wellington as Prime Minister from 1828-30 called him a ‘Dictator’. Sidney Low argued in 1904 that for ‘the greater part of the past half century…The office of premier has become more than ever like that of an elective President’. David Lloyd George was described by Harold Laski in 1920 as ‘virtually the President of a State’. In the 1960s John Mackintosh held that the ‘position and power of the Prime Minister has been the focal point of modern Cabinets’; and Richard Crossman that ‘the post war epoch has seen the final transformation of cabinet government into prime ministerial government’.

Similar claims have been made up to the present; but there have always been opposing views. In 1775 Dr. (Samuel) Johnson, who had once been associated with the movement attacking Walpole for being excessively strong, complained that under Lord North ‘government had too little power…there was now no Prime Minister’. In his 1876 novel, The Prime Minister, Anthony Trollope depicted the character of the Duke of Omnium describing how, as premier, ‘I never felt before that I had to lean so entirely on others as I do now’. Two years later Gladstone wrote:

“The head of the British Government is not a Grand Vizier. He has no powers, properly so called, over his colleagues.”

In 1899 the former Prime Minister Lord Rosebery wrote that

“a Prime Minister who is the senior partner in every department as well as president of the whole, who deals with all the business of government, who inspires and vibrates through every part, is almost, if not quite, an impossibility.”

In 1976 the former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, reflected that few premiers “except in wartime and rarely then, could dictate to their Cabinets.” unless they consulted with senior ministers. It is unlikely that this clash of views about the premiership will ever fully be resolved.

Aides to Walpole and his successors

While the post of Prime Minister is filled by only one person, the institution of the premiership is a group enterprise. Premiers have relied on staff ever since Walpole initiated the role. The basic functions of his staff were those that many future Prime Ministers would continue to require. A number of MPs helped him manage votes in the Commons. In the Lords the same task was performed by Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London, who secured the support of the bloc of 26 Bishops. Gibson, who was labelled ‘Walpole’s Pope’, also advised Walpole on wider Church issues. The Treasury assisted Walpole with issues of policy, administration and election management. He constructed a communications operation to promote himself publicly, including using control of the post office to prevent the distribution of critical works, bribing authors not to write them, and producing, printing and circulating newspapers, journals and poems praising Walpole and attacking his enemies.

The physical location of the office of the premiership was established at this early point. In the 1730s the celebrated architect William Kent built new offices for the Treasury and renovated No.10 Downing Street, which became the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury. Kent designed corridors to link the two buildings, providing Walpole with easy access to his Treasury staff. From the 1960s the Cabinet Office was based in the area previously occupied by the Treasury, creating the same convenient physical proximity.

Support staff continued to be important for Walpole’s successors. In the first phase of the premiership, when Prime Ministers were normally in direct control of the Treasury, one of their most important aides was the Secretary of the Treasury, who combined various key roles. They included recording decisions at Treasury meetings and ensuring they were put into effect, enforcing parliamentary discipline, advising on policy, organising election campaigns and predicting the outcomes, managing the distribution of patronage, and providing personal assistance to the premier.

Another significant aide has been the secretary to the Prime Minister. One early holder of this position was the young Edmund Burke, who worked for Lord Rockingham during his first spell as Prime Minister (1756-1765). In 1806 public funding was established for one secretary, with a second added in 1812.  One Prime Minister’s secretary, Edward Drummond, inadvertently performed the ultimate service when an assassin mistook him for Sir Robert Peel in 1843. Drummond was shot in the back and died five days later.

Other staff included Francis Bonham, who helped Peel in his handling of the Conservative Party within Parliament and nationally in the 1830s and 40s, foreshadowing the role of the No.10 Political Secretary. John (Lord) Acton, the eminent historian, helped Gladstone with various tasks from developing his overall policy to liaising with Queen Victoria. Ever since Walpole’s era aides have been deployed on media management. Alfred Austin, a pro-Conservative journalist, wrote anonymous articles in the press to help Lord Salisbury promote his ideas, as well as providing him with political advice. In recognition of his efforts Austin was appointed Poet Laureate in 1896, despite being notorious for bad verse. Over time the tasks these individuals performed became more formalised, regularised and specialised.

Developments in staffing

Some of the basic kinds of support provided to Prime Ministers have not changed radically over time, but there have been significant structural shifts. The pressure involved in military combat has been an important influence. During the Napoleonic wars the support team for the first minister was substantially restructured, including in 1805 the creation of the role of Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, a forerunner to the Whitehall departmental Permanent Secretary. This post enabled its occupant – who did not hold a seat in the Commons – to focus on administrative issues without being distracted by parliamentary business.

In 1916 Lloyd George introduced a number of innovations intended to help win the First World War. He established a team of aides, each charged with overseeing particular policy areas. Formally labelled the ‘Prime Minister’s Secretariat’, it was known colloquially as the ‘Garden Suburb’ because its members were housed in huts erected on the lawn behind Downing Street. It was scaled down and abolished after the war. Lloyd George also introduced a secretary to take minutes at meetings of the War Cabinet he established. In the years before 1916 the only written account of Cabinet discussions was the letter drafted by the premier for the monarch. There were sometimes misunderstandings amongst ministers about what precisely had been agreed. To end this unsatisfactory arrangement, Lloyd George inaugurated the post of Cabinet Secretary and the body that would become the Cabinet Office. Both would prove crucial in supporting the Prime Minister as chair of the Cabinet and in various other initiatives. The role of Cabinet Secretary became part of popular culture in the 1980s through the portrayal of the fictitious holder of the office, Sir Humphrey Appleby, in the television series Yes, Prime Minister.

Though some of Lloyd George’s methods fell into disrepute after he left office in 1922, his use of aides in wartime proved influential. In 1940 Winston Churchill set up a Prime-Ministerial support team called the Statistical Section. The central purpose of the Section was to keep him informed about the allocation of resources involved in the Second World War. It was led by the physicist Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), nicknamed ‘The Prof.’ Indeed Lloyd George’s ‘Garden Suburb’ can be seen as a forerunner of the Policy Unit, set up by Harold Wilson in 1974 and still part of No. 10 today.

Another development in staffing involved the emergence of the permanent Civil Service as the core of the office of Prime Minister. In the early days of the premiership there was no clear division between political and administrative staff. Senior ministers – including premiers – received assistance from individuals known as ‘men of business’, who combined functions later associated with junior ministers with those that would today be attributed to civil servants. By the mid-nineteenth century there emerged a permanent, impartial Civil Service which, by the late 1920s, became the most important source of support for the Prime Minister within No.10, comprising his or her private office of official private secretaries.  From the 1960s onwards this trend was to some extent reversed with the appearance of special advisers, who combined party political and civil-service functions. They were similar to the ‘men of business’ of the eighteenth century.

From the twentieth century onwards a variety of units were set up to provide services to the Prime Minister, located either at No. 10 Downing Street or in the Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall. They included the Press Office (which can be traced back to the appointment of a press secretary, George Steward, in 1931), the Political Office (1964), and the Policy Unit (1974).

This proliferation of prime-ministerial units and offices involved an expansion in staff numbers. The upward trend was only gradual at first, but accelerated during the second half of the twentieth century, with premiers bolstering their staff to support them in major policy projects, such as reversing economic decline, improving public services and communicating with the public. By 1997 the total number of staff at No.10 had risen substantially, to around 200 by 2000. The prime-ministerial team by this point included substantial numbers in the Cabinet Office as well as No. 10, with a grand total of 782 in 2005-2006.

Since this peak, though direct comparison of figures is not possible, the number of staff has substantially reduced. But the growth that had taken place, coupled with the increased use of special advisers, prompted speculation that an informal ‘Department of the Prime Minister’ had been established. If such a body were ever officially established, the British premiership could be said to have clearly entered a new, third phase.

Edited by History & Policy

Further reading

Andrew Blick and George Jones, Premiership: the development, nature and power of the office of the British Prime Minister (Imprint Academic, Exeter, 2010)

Michael Foley, The British Presidency (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000

Peter Hennessy, The Prime Minister: The office and its holders since 1945 (Penguin, London, 2001)

Paul Langford, ‘Prime Ministers and Parliaments: the long view, Walpole to Blair’, The Annual History of Parliament Lecture, 2005, Parliamentary History, 25 (2006), pp.382-94

Copyright  and . This article was produced as part of the No10 Guest Historian series, coordinated by History & Policy.

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