Leader of the House of Commons

L is for Leader of the House of Commons, the minister in charge of Commons business on behalf of the government, and a position which used to be virtually synonymous with the premiership.

The most frequently quoted description of the role of Leader of the House of Commons seems still to be Gladstone’s, in an essay published in 1878 discussing the contrasts between the American and British constitutions. ‘In each House of Parliament’, he wrote,

it is indispensable that one of the principal Ministers should be what is termed its Leader. This is an office the most indefinite of all, but not the least important. With very little of defined prerogative, the Leader suggests, and in a great degree fixes, the course of all principal matters of business, supervises and keeps in harmony the action of his colleagues, takes the initiative in matters of ceremonial procedure, and advises the House in every difficulty as it arises. The first of these, which would be of but secondary consequence where the assembly had time enough for all its duties, is of the utmost weight in our overcharged House of Commons, where, notwithstanding all its energy and all its diligence, for one thing of consequence that is done, five or ten are despairingly postponed. The overweight, again, of the House of Commons is apt, other things being equal, to bring its leader inconveniently near in power to a Prime Minister who is a peer. He can play off the House of Commons against his chief; and instances might be cited, though they are happily most rare, when he has served him very ugly tricks.

Although some of it could apply to the present, the description reads rather oddly these days, as it refers to a situation in which the Leader of the House was either prime minister, or effectively deputy prime minister: he (for no woman was leader before Ann Taylor in 1997), was actually the leader of a party in the House of Commons. Gladstone’s remarks on the subject devote particular attention to the risk to the balance of a government whose leader is in the Lords. They reflected his own experience, for he had combined the chancellorship of the exchequer with the role during the second government of the Earl Russell. It would have reflected the situation of his rival Disraeli, who succeeded him as chancellor in 1866 in the government of the Earl of Derby, and had already served in 1852 and 1858-9 in the same capacity. And it would have referred to the situation at the time of his writing, when Disraeli, now ennobled as Earl of Beaconsfield, led the ministry from the Lords, with Stafford Northcote serving as Leader in the Commons.

Since 1902, no-one has exercised the premiership from the Lords. For the following forty years the leadership of the Commons was held by the prime minister, except in the exceptional circumstances of the Lloyd George coalition of 1916-22, when the role was taken by the successive leaders of the conservative party, Bonar Law and Austen Chamberlain. From 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Winston Churchill delegated it to Stafford Cripps, and then Anthony Eden; since then it has always been a separate ministerial role, usually receiving a salary under the Ministerial and Other Salaries Acts by virtue of being combined with one or other of the offices of the Lord President of the Council, the Lord Privy Seal, or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, or very occasionally some other cabinet-level appointment. In contrast to its past image, the job these days is often seen as a step down for a senior Cabinet minister, a bitty post without anything substantial to get your teeth into: it was for Margaret Beckett (as comes across in this Institute for Government interview ); and other ministers, including Geoffrey Howe, have felt the same, even when given honorific titles such as Deputy Prime Minister. You can also listen to Ann Taylor, the first woman Leader of the House, talking about the position, here.

Herbert Morrison, who held the position for six years during most of the Labour administration of 1945-51, provided the best twentieth-century account of its responsibilities, in his Government and Parliament (originally published 1954), though even this is about as distanced in time from the present as it was from Gladstone’s:

The Leader of the House … has, subject to the Cabinet, an overriding responsibility for the Business of the House and the Government’s programme. In my case he was—and in my view should be—Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Legislation and of the Committee dealing with the future legislative programme. He makes the weekly Business statement to the House and answers supplementary questions about it. He has a particular responsibility to the House as a whole in leading and guiding it on procedural difficulties, on privilege matters, on domestic affairs, and on ceremonial occasions if the Prime Minister does not himself act. He has a general responsibility to safeguard what one may term the decencies and to ensure that Business arrangements have regard to what is right and proper in the interests of the House as a whole. (3rd edition, 1964, 130-1)

As Morrison’s account suggests, and as John Biffen’s sketch in his Inside Westminster of 1989 more colourfully indicates, much of the public work of the post is focused on the once-weekly session in the House of Commons, the routine Thursday session of business questions. It’s difficult to pin down exactly when this started, as the Leader of the House would be asked during the nineteenth century questions at any time of the day or night about the status of future business. But certainly, by the beginning of the twentieth century it was a common, if not habitual practice, for the leader of the opposition or someone else to ask the Leader of the House what business was planned to be taken for the next week; and by 1908 it was being referred as ‘usual’.

As with many roles, the title was not applied until the role had existed for many years. William Coxe, Walpole’s eighteenth century biographer, used the phrase in 1798, though not to describe a particular office, nor even Walpole, but Walpole’s opponent, William Pulteney, and his popularity in the Commons as a result of his excoriation of the ministry’s prosecution of the war with Spain (i. 699). At least one commentator used the term of Spencer Perceval, in 1807, when he led the government in the Commons under the premiership of the duke of Portland (Letters of Scaevola on the Dismissal of His Majesty’s Late Ministers (London, 1807), part. II, 23). The term seems to have been more widely employed in print in the 1820s, following the suicide in 1822 of Viscount Castlereagh. It would not be surprising if Castlereagh’s prominence, as the ministry’s leader and spokesman in the Commons for about ten years, during much of the premiership of Lord Liverpool, would have encouraged the use of a new title, as Walpole’s longevity at the head of an administration a century before had popularised the title Prime Minister.

Castlereagh perhaps set the pattern for others to follow: despite the many who loathed him as the leading light of an authoritarian and repressive ministry, he was widely regarded as a man ‘of good temper and good manners’, ‘good natured, high bred’, with a courage ‘so undbouted that he could allow people to take liberties with him, or disregard them, as unworthy of his notice, which other men might have lost reputation by not resenting’. Discussions in the newspapers about Castlereagh’s successor underline that sense that the Leader had to be a person of integrity, regarded well by the whole House. George Canning was regarded by The Times in 1822 as ‘too poor to be anything but a governor-general, and too witty to be leader of the House’ [19 August 1822]. It speculated further on his qualities a few weeks later after a leaky cabinet meeting, commenting that Canning himself was clearly, as we would say these days, on manoeuvres, with ‘the friends and proneurs who still adhere to him’ helping him with ‘the puff collusive’. Canning, it said, was a ‘joker and orator, but a statesman he is none’. [6 September 1822] Canning would, of course, become Leader and Prime Minister, though many of the reservations about him would persist.

The Leader most fondly remembered was probably Viscount Althorp, who managed to hold the position during the political upheavals of the Reform bills while retaining the almost universal respect and admiration of the House: his ‘stout, honest face, and farmer-like figure, habited in ill-made black clothes, his trousers rucked up in a heap round his legs, one coat flap turned around, and exposing his posterior, and the pocket of the other crammed full of papers… while he bluntly told his plain, unsophisticated tale with his usual correct feeling and stout sense’. When he accepted, gratefully, removal to the House of Lords in 1834 following the death of his father and his inheritance of the Spencer earldom, the difficulty of replacing him (and the unacceptability in the role of the obvious choice, Lord John Russell) was used as an excuse by William IV to dismiss the whole ministry, despite its majority in the Commons. Picking over the excuse that no-one could be found to fill Althorp’s shoes produced at least one discussion of the qualities required. The Eclectic Review, while supporting Russell’s credentials against Tory claims that he would be ‘a joke’, considered the post to demand:

the union of great personal weight and parliamentary experience, readiness and tact in debate, physical powers of sustaining almost incessant fatigue, and, of course, political prominence and responsibility. Powers of oratory are not sufficient to qualify a Cabinet minister for this laborious and responsible function. It is not enough that, like Mr Grant, Mr Rice, or Lord Palmerston, the individual is capable of getting up, now and then, a powerful display of eloquence. The leader must be, if not an orator, a ready debater, prompt in reply, and moreover, a clever tactician, capable of watching his opportunity, and shaping his decisions by the aspect of parties, and the turns and accidents of debate. So admirably qualified was the Lord Althorp for the post he occupied, by his experience, temper, readiness, aristocratic influence, and the general confidence reposed in his honour and integrity, that Sir Robert Peel is stated to have expressed high admiration of his skilful management during the progress of the Reform Bill, and to have confessed that no other member of the House could have carried through the measure with equal success. Yet, his Lordship is very far from being an orator: in fact, only an indifferent speaker. (The Eclectic Review 3rd series, vol. 12 (1834 July-December), p. 507-8)

The qualities expected in a Prime Minister now are rather different to those regarded as essential in a Leader of the House in 1834 (I don’t suppose ‘aristocratic influence’ would be much of a recommendation these days); and the Leader of the House itself is a rather different post. But something of the importance of integrity, a sense that the whole House, not just the Leader’s party, trusts the person who fills the post, still lingers.

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