Why Is George Osborne ‘First Secretary of State’?

A reader asked the following:

Why did Cameron make George Osborne First Secretary of State when he’s already Chancellor of the Exchequer? 

The simple answer is that it’s basically an honor. The title of First Secretary of State is essentially a sinecure, and it doesn’t have any responsibilities attached to it. However, Osborne could theoretically act for any of the other Secretaries of State due to the peculiarities of their office.

The position of First Secretary of State is comparatively new. It was first bestowed on R. A. Butler during Harold Macmillan’s infamous “Night of the Long Knives” reshuffle in 1962. At the same time, Butler also became Deputy Prime Minister, but since this office has no basis in law, he was paid as First Secretary of State.[1]

The office of First Secretary of State is not, however, synonymous with the office of Deputy Prime Minister.[2] In most cases, it has been given to someone who already holds a substantive office in government as a sort of accolade. For example, Harold Wilson conferred it on George Brown (Deputy Leader of the Labour Party[3] and Economic Secretary), Michael Stewart (Economic Secretary, then Foreign Secretary), and Barbara Castle (Employment and Productivity Secretary), while Gordon Brown bestowed it on his Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, which was a strange choice since he was also Lord President of the Council, which ranks higher in the Order of Precedence than the First Secretary of State.

Cameron’s decision to make George Osborne First Secretary has given the latter a huge boost in precedence. Despite the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is now one of the most important positions in modern government, it occupies a comparatively lowly rank in the official pecking order.[4] In practical terms, matters of precedence don’t mean much, and this is just a way for Cameron give a trusted lieutenant a pat on the back.

NOTES

[1] In the case of a coalition government where the Deputy Prime Minister is the leader of the junior party, they are usually given the higher-ranking office of Lord President of the Council.

[2] Only three of the nine First Secretaries have also been Deputy Prime Minister.

[3] He was not Deputy Prime Minister though.

[4] Technically, the Chancellor of the Exchequer ranks below members of the Privy Council, though this is a bit misleading since all Cabinet Ministers will also be Privy Counsellors. Therefore, in practice the Chancellor occupies a slightly higher place, though they are still well below other members of the Cabinet.

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