In an unexpected development, Andrea Leadsom has quit the race for Conservative leader, leaving Theresa May as the only candidate to succeed David Cameron. However, certain formalities must take place before May can take the reins of government. In this post, I’ll explain how May will become Prime Minister.
First, David Cameron must tender his resignation to the Queen. The rule of thumb is that the outgoing premier doesn’t resign until there is a clear successor waiting in the wings, which is why Gordon Brown didn’t step down immediately after the 2010 General Election. When tendering his resignation, Cameron will advise Her Majesty that May is able to command the confidence of the House of Commons.
The Queen will then send for May and ask her to form a government. Nowadays, the prospective Prime Minister is likely to respond with unqualified acceptance, but it’s also possible to accept an ‘exploratory commission.’ In this case, they agree to explore whether they can form a government and report back to Her Majesty once they have a definitive answer.
May will become Prime Minister as soon as she accepts the Queen’s invitation. However, ‘Prime Minister’ is technically a courtesy title rather than an office, so she must hold another position in order to draw a salary. For the past several hundred years, premiers have also served as ‘First Lord of the Treasury,’ but there have been exceptions to this rule (for example, in the late nineteenth century, the Marquess of Salisbury served as Foreign Secretary and then Lord Privy Seal rather than First Lord of the Treasury). In practice, the Prime Minister’s role at the Treasury is purely nominal, and day-to-day responsibility for the nation’s finances restd with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. May will be sworn in as First Lord of the Treasury at a meeting of the Privy Council, and her appointment will later be confirmed by Letters Patent. May will also become ‘Minister for the Civil Service,’ but this is a comparatively minor position compared to the others.
Although Labour and the Liberal Democrats have already started taking potshots at May for being an ‘un-elected Prime Minister,’ there is nothing untoward about a new premier taking office without fighting a General Election. A Prime Minister holds office because they have the confidence of the Commons, not the electorate. It’s a bit ironic that Labour should make a fuss about this given the fact that Gordon Brown waited three years before going to the country, but politicians can have short memories.