Britain: Executive Leadership from the Top

  • Ludger Helms


The most basic rule governing the constitutional and political relationship between the executive and parliament in Britain, as in any parliamentary democracy, is to be seen in the government’s obligation to step down if it loses the support of the parliamentary majority. As in the bulk of other major West European parliamentary democracies (with the notable exception of Italy, where governments can be forced to resign by a vote of either house of parliament), the right to dismiss the government rests with the first chamber, the House of Commons.1 However, as with so many other arrangements of the British constitution, this key principle of British parliamentary government has experienced remarkable transformations over time. In traditional constitutional theory, the view prevailed that governments had to resign, and call a general election, after losing a major bill at the second reading stage. In the early 1970s, the convention emerged that a government was to step down only after suffering a defeat in an explicit vote of censure. Even though there was no firmly established practice of governments resigning on a single lost second reading vote in the House of Commons before 1970, the premiership of Edward Heath (1970–4) is widely seen as a crucial watershed regarding the agreed terms of when governments are to resign (Norton, 1981).


Prime Minister Labour Party Resale Price Maintenance Parliamentary Democracy Executive Leadership 
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  1. 22.
    Whereas Churchill was viewed by many observers at the time as a ‘Dangerous maverick’, placing himself and his administration outside the running game of party politics, more recent experience with the Blair government has prompted arguments about the possible rise of a ‘partyless democracy’ (Mair, 2000).Google Scholar

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© Ludger Helms 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ludger Helms
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of GovernmentLondon School of Economics and Political ScienceUK

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