- Leader of the Opposition (United Kingdom)
The Leader of the Opposition (sometimes known as the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons) in the
United Kingdomis the politician who leads Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition. There is also a Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords. At one time the leaders in the two Houses were of equal status, unless one was the most recent Prime Minister from the party forming the official opposition. However since early in the twentieth century there has been little dispute that the leader in the House of Commons was pre-eminent.
The Leader of the Opposition is normally the leader of the largest party not within the government, which is usually the second largest party in the House of Commons. He or she is normally viewed as an alternative Prime Minister, and is a member of the Privy Council.
The current Leader of the Opposition is
David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party.
Leaders of the Opposition from 1807
Early Developments 1807-1830
"The discussion of the position up to 1830 and the emergence of the office of Leader of the Opposition, is based upon "His Majesty's Opposition 1714-1830", by Archibald S. Foord."
For there to be a recognised Leader of the Opposition, it was necessary for there to be a sufficiently cohesive opposition to need a formal leader. The first time this situation developed was in the Parliament of 1807-1812, when the members of the Grenvillite and Foxite Whig factions decided to formalise a joint leadership for the whole Whig Party.
Ministry of all the Talents, in which both Whig factions participated, fell before the United Kingdom general election, 1807. The Whigs then re-adopted the traditional type of factional leadership, of an opposition rather than the opposition. The Prime Minister of the Talents ministry, Lord Grenville, led his faction from the House of Lords. The former government Leader of the House of Commons, Viscount Howick (the political heir of Charles James Foxwho had died in 1806), led his faction from the House of Commons.
Howick's father, the 1st Earl Grey died on
14 November 1807. The new Earl Grey automatically vacated his seat in the House of Commons and moved to the House of Lords. This left no obvious Whig leader in the House of Commons.
Grenville's article in the "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography" confirms that he was considered the Whig leader in the House of Lords between 1807 and 1817, despite Grey leading the larger faction.
Grenville and Grey, who Foord described as being "the duumvirs of the party from 1807 to 1817", consulted about what was to be done. Grenville was at first reluctant to name a Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, commenting "... all the elections in the world would not have made Windham or Sheridan leaders of the old Opposition while Fox was alive ...".
In the end Grenville and Grey made a joint recommendation to the Whig MPs, of
George Ponsonby, who was accepted as the first Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons. Ponsonby, an Irish lawyer who was the uncle of Grey's wife, had been Lord Chancellor of Irelandduring the Ministry of all the Talents and had only just been re-elected to the House of Commons in 1808 when he became leader.
Ponsonby was a weak leader, but as he could not be persuaded to resign and the duumvirs did not want to depose him, he remained in place until he died in 1817.
Lord Grenville retired from active politics in 1817, leaving Grey as the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords. Grey was not a former Prime Minister in 1817, unlike Grenville, so under the convention that developed later in the century he would have been in theory of equal status to whoever was leader in the other House. However there was little doubt that if a Whig ministry was to be formed, Grey rather than the less distinguished Commons leaders would have been invited to form that government. In this respect Grey's position was like that of the Earl of Derby in the Protectionist Conservative opposition of the late 1840s and early 1850s.
There was a delay of about a year, until 1818, before a new Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons was chosen. This was
George Tierney. He was reluctant to accept the leadership and had weak support from his party. On 18 May 1819, Tierney moved a motion in the House of Commons for a committee on the state of the nation. This motion was defeated by 357 to 178, which was a division involving the largest number of MPs until the debates over the Reform bill in the early 1830s. Foord comments that "this defeat put an effective end to Tierney's leadership ... Tierney did not disclaim the leadership till 23 Jan. 1821 ..., but he had ceased to exercise its functions since the great defeat".
Between 1821 and 1830 the Whig Commons leadership was left vacant. The leadership in the House of Lords was not much more effective. In 1824 Grey retired from active leadership, asking the party to follow the Marquess of Lansdowne "as the person whom his friends were to look upon as their leader". Lansdowne disclaimed the title of leader, although in practice he performed the function.
Following the retirement of Lord Liverpool from the Prime Ministership in 1827, the party political situation changed. The principal opposition between April 1827 and January 1828 followed the Duke of Wellington and
Robert Peel, although Earl Grey and a section of the Whigs were also in opposition to the coalition government.
Neither Peel nor Wellington agreed to serve under
George Canningand they were followed by five other members of the former Cabinet as well as forty junior members of the previous government. The Tory Party was heavily split between the "High Tories" (or "Ultras", nicknamed after the contemporary party in France) and the moderates supporting Canning, often called ' Canningites'. As a result Canning found it difficult to form a government and chose to invite a number of Whigs to join his Cabinet, including Lord Lansdowne. After Canning's death, Lord Goderich continued the coalition for a few more months.
The Duke of Wellington formed a ministry in January 1828 and after it adopted a policy of
Catholic Emancipation, the opposition was composed of Whigs, Canningites and some ultra-Tories. Lord Lansdowne, in the absence of any alternative, remained the leading figure in the Whig opposition.
In 1830 Grey returned to the front rank of politics. On
30 June 1830he denounced the government in the House of Lords. He rapidly attracted the support of opponents of the ministry. The renewal of organised opposition was also marked earlier in the year by the election of a new Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, the heir of Earl Spencer, Viscount Althorp. In November 1830 Grey was invited to form a government and resumed the formal leadership of the party.
Wellington and Peel again became the Leaders of the Opposition in the two Houses, from November 1830.
Leaders of the Opposition 1830-1937
"The discussion in this section is based upon "British Historical Facts 1830-1900" and "Twentieth Century British Political Facts 1900-2000".
In this period the normal expectation was that there would be two leading parties (often with smaller allied groups), of which one would form the government and the other the opposition. Both these parties were expected to have recognised leaders in the two Houses, so there was normally no problem in identifying who was the Leader of the Opposition in each House.
The constitutional convention developed in the nineteenth century was that if one of the leaders was the last Prime Minister of the party, then he would be considered the overall leader of his party. If that was not the case then the leaders of both Houses were of equal status. As the monarch retained some discretion as to which leader should be invited to form a ministry, it was not always obvious in advance which one would be called upon to do so.
However as the Leadership of the Opposition only existed by custom, the normal expectations and conventions were modified by political realities from time to time.
From 1830 until 1846 the Tory/Conservative Party and the Whig Party (increasingly often described with its Radical and other allies as the Liberal Party) alternated in power and provided clear Leaders of the Opposition.
In 1846 the Conservative Party split into Protectionist Conservative and
Peelite(or Liberal Conservative) factions. The Protectionists being the larger group, the recognised Leaders of the Opposition were drawn from their ranks. In the House of Lords, Lord Stanley (subsequently the Earl of Derby) was the Protectionist leader. He was the only established front rank political figure in the faction and thus a very strong candidate to form the next Conservative ministry.
The leadership in the House of Commons was more problematic.
Lord George Bentinck, the leader of the Protectionist revolt against Sir Robert Peel, initially led the party in the Commons. He resigned in December 1847. The party was then faced with the problem of how to produce a credible leader, who was not Benjamin Disraeli.
The first attempt to square the circle, was made in February 1848, when the young Marquess of Granby was installed as the leader. He gave up the post in March 1848. The leadership then fell vacant until February 1849.
The next experiment was to entrust the leadership to a
triumvirateof Granby, Disraeli and the elderly John Charles Herries. In practice Disraeli ignored his co-triumvirs. In 1851 Granby resigned and the party accepted Disraeli as the sole leader. The Protectionists by then were clearly the core of the Conservative Party and Derby was able to form his first government in 1852.
The Liberal Party was formally founded in 1859, replacing the Whig Party as one of the two leading parties. With increasing party discipline it became easier to define the principal opposition party and the Leaders of the Opposition.
The last overall Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Lords, was the Earl of Rosebery. He had been Liberal Prime Minister from 1894 to 1895 and served as Leader of the Opposition until he resigned in November 1896.
In 1915 the Liberal, Conservative and Labour parties formed a coalition. The
Irish Parliamentary Partydid not join the government, but were not in opposition to it. As almost nobody in the Parliament could be said to be in opposition to the coalition, the Leaderships of the Opposition fell vacant.
Sir Edward Carson, the leading figure amongst the Irish Unionist part of the Conservative and Unionist Party, resigned from the coalition ministry on
19 October 1915. He then became the leader of those Unionists who were not members of the government, effectively Leader of the Opposition in the Commons.
The situation changed in December 1916. A leading Liberal,
David Lloyd George, formed a coalition with the support of a section of the Liberals and the Conservative and Labour parties. The Liberal leader, Herbert Henry Asquithand most of his leading colleagues, left the government and took up seats on what was traditionally the opposition side of the House of Commons. Asquith was recognised as the Leader of the Opposition. He retained that post until he was defeated in the United Kingdom general election, 1918. Although Asquith continued to be the leader of the Liberal Party, as he was not a member of the House of Commons he was not eligible to be Leader of the Oppositiom.
The Parliament elected in 1918, which sat from 1919 until 1922, represents the most significant deviation from the principle that the Leader of the Opposition is the leader of the party not in government with the greatest numerical support in the House of Commons. The largest opposition party (disregarding
Sinn Féin, whose MPs did not take their seats at Westminster), was the Labour Party which had left the continuing Lloyd George coalition and won 57 seats at the general election. Thirty six Liberals had been elected without coalition support, but not all of those were opponents of Lloyd George. The Labour Party did not have a leader before 1922. The Parliamentary Labour Party annually elected a Chairman, but the party did not seriously assert a claim that the Chairman was the Leader of the Opposition. Although the issue of who was entitled to be Leader of the Oppositon was never formally resolved, in practice the Opposition Liberal leader performed the Parliamentary functions associated with the office.
The small group of Opposition Liberals met in 1919. They resolved that they were the Liberal Parliamentary Party. They elected Sir Donald Maclean as Chairman of the Parliamentary Party. Liberal Party practice at the time, when the overall Leader of the Party was not a member of the House of Commons, was for the Chairman to function as the Leader in the House. Maclean therefore took on the role of Leader of the Opposition, until Asquith returned to the House after a by-election in 1920 and took over.
From 1922 the Labour Party had a recognised leader and took over from the Liberal Party the role of being one of the two largest parties, alternating in government and as the principal opposition party. From this point, all Leaders of the Opposition in the House of Commons were overall Leaders of the Opposition. There were three instances of peers being seriously considered for the Prime Ministership, during the twentieth century (Curzon of Kedleston in 1923, Halifax in 1940 and Home in 1963), but these were all cases where the Conservative Party was in government and do not affect the List of Leaders of the Opposition.
In 1931-32 the Leader of the Labour Party was
Arthur Henderson. He was Leader of the Opposition for a short period in 1931, but was ineligible to continue when he lost his seat in the 1931 general election. George Lansburywas Leader of the Opposition before he also became the Leader of the Labour Party in 1932.
Statutory Leaders of the Opposition from 1937
Leaders of the Opposition, in the two Houses of Parliament, had been generally recognised and given a special status in Parliament for more than a century before they were mentioned in legislation.
Erskine May's "Parliamentary Practice" confirms that the office of Leader of the Opposition was first given statutory recognition in the Ministers of the Crown Act 1937.
* Section 5 states that "There shall be paid to the Leader of the Opposition an annual salary of two thousand pounds".
* Section 10(1) includes a definition (which codifies the usual situation under the previous custom) -" "Leader of the Opposition" means that member of the House of Commons who is for the time being the leader in that House of the party in opposition to His Majesty's Government having the greatest numerical strength in that House".
* The 1937 Act also contains an important provision to decide who is the Leader of the Opposition, if this is in doubt. Under section 10(3) "If any doubt arises as to which is or was at any material time the party in opposition to His Majesty's Government having the greatest numerical strength in the House of Commons, or as to who is or was at any material time the leader in that House of such a party the question shall be decided for the purposes of this Act by the Speaker of the House of Commons, and his decision, certified in writing under his hand, shall be final and conclusive".
Subsequent legislation also gave statutory recognition to the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords.
* Section 2(1) of the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975, provides that "In this Act "Leader of the Opposition" means, in relation to either House of Parliament, that member of that House who is for the time being the Leader in that House of the party in opposition to Her Majesty's Government having the greatest numerical strength in the House of Commons".
* Section 2(2) is in exactly the same terms as section 10(3) of the 1937 Act (apart from substituting Her Majesty's for His Majesty's).
* Section 2(3) is a corresponding provision for the Lord Chancellor to decide about the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords.
The legislative provisions confirm that Leader of the Opposition is, strictly, a Parliamentary office; so that to be Leader a person must be a member of the House in which he or she leads.
Since 1937, the Leader of the Opposition has received a state salary in addition to their salary as a
Member of Parliament(MP), now equivalent to a Cabinet Minister. The holder also receives a chauffeur-driven car for official business of equivalent cost and specification to the vehicles used by most cabinet ministers.
In 1940 the three largest parties in the House of Commons formed a coalition government to continue to prosecute the
Second World War. This coalition continued in office until shortly after the defeat of Germany in 1945. As the former Leader of the Opposition had joined the government the issue arose of who was to hold the office or perform its functions. "Keesing's Contemporary Archives 1937-1940"' (at paragraph 4069D) reported the situation, based on " Hansard".
The Prime Minister replying to Mr Denman in the House of Commons on May 21, said that in view of the formation of an Administration embracing the three main political parties, H.M. Government was of the opinion that the provision of the Ministers of the Crown Act, 1937, relating to the payment of a salary to the Leader of the Opposition was in abeyance for the time being, as there was no alternative party capable of forming a Government. He added that he did not consider amending legislation necessary.
Daily Heraldreported that the Parliamentary Labour Partymet on 22 May 1940and unanimously elected Dr H.B. Lees-Smith as Chairman of the PLP (an office normally held by the party leader at that time) and as spokesman of the Party from the opposition front bench.
After the death of Lees-Smith , on
18 December 1941, the PLP held a meeting on 21 January 1942. F. Pethick-Lawrence was unanimously elected Chairman of the PLP and the official spokesman of the party in the House of Commons while the party leader was serving in the government. After the deputy leader of the party (Arthur Greenwood) left the government on 22 February 1942he took over these roles from Pethick-Lawrence until the end of the coalition and the resumption of normal party politics.
Table Listing Leaders of the Opposition
The table lists the people who were, or who acted as, Leaders of the Opposition in the two Houses of Parliament since 1807.
The leaders of the two Houses were of equal status, before 1922, unless one was the most recent Prime Minister for the party. Such a former Prime Minister was considered to be the overall Leader of the Opposition. From 1922 the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons was considered to be the overall Leader of the Opposition. Overall leaders names are bolded. Acting leaders names are in italics, unless the acting leader subsequently became a full leader during a continuous period as leader.
Due to the fragmentation of both principal parties in 1827-30, the Leaders and principal opposition parties suggested for those years are provisional.
A + after the name, indicates the leader died in office.
* 1 Formerly Prime Minister
* 2 Subsequently Prime Minister
* 3 Formerly and subsequently Prime Minister
* A Foord suggests that Lansdowne was, in effect, acting Whig leader in 1824-27. This may possibly have also been the case in 1828-30. Grey's article in the "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography" suggests "... though he called on Lansdowne to take up the leadership of the opposition he was still unwilling to give it up altogether". Grey was in opposition in 1827-28, when Lansdowne was in government. Given the confusion of the politics of the period, particularly after 1827 when both principal parties were fragmented, it is possible that Grey should be considered Leader of the Opposition 1824-1830. However the definite statements (by Foord) that Grey resigned the leadership in 1824 and (by Cook & Keith) that Grey did not resume the leadership until November 1830 leads to a different conclusion.
* B An alternative interpretation is that Palmerston (the immediate past Prime Minister) and Lord John Russell (a previous Prime Minister) were joint leaders. Cook & Keith have Palmerston as the sole leader.
* C Harcourt resigned
14 December 1898.
* D Rosebery resigned
6 October 1896.
* E Balfour lost his seat in the House of Commons in January 1906.
* F During Asquith's coalition government of 1915-1916, there was no formal opposition in either the Commons or the Lords. The only party not in Asquith's Liberal, Conservative, Labour Coalition was the Irish Nationalist Party led by
John Redmond. However, this party supported the government and did not function as an Opposition.: Sir Edward Carson, the leading figure amongst the Irish Unionist allies of the Conservative Party, resigned from the coalition ministry on 19 October 1915. He then became the de facto leader of those Unionists who were not members of the government, effectively Leader of the Opposition in the Commons.
* G Asquith lost his seat in the House of Commons in December 1918.
* H Douglas in "The History of the Liberal Party 1895-1970" observes that "The technical question whether the Leader of the Opposition was Maclean or
William Adamson, Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, was never fully resolved ... The fact that Adamson did not press his claim for Opposition leadership is of more than technical interest, for it shows that the Labour Party was still not taking itself seriously as a likely alternative government".
* I The Labour Party did not appoint a Leader in the Lords, until it formed its first government in 1924.
* J Henderson lost his seat in the House of Commons on
27 October 1931.
* K Lansbury was acting as Leader, in the absence from the House of Commons of Henderson, in 1931-1932; before becoming party leader himself in 1932.
* L Attlee was acting as Leader, after the resignation of Lansbury on
25 October 1935, before being elected party leader himself on 3 December 1935.
* M During
World War IIa succession of Labour politicians acted as Leader of the Opposition for the purpose of allowing the House of Commons to function normally. However, because the Government 1940-45 was a coalition government in which Labour politicians functioned fully as members of the Government, from Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee downwards, none of them received the salary for the post of Leader of the Opposition.
:The largest party that opposed the war and was not part of the coalition - and therefore, in theory, the opposition was the Independent Labour Party led by
James Maxton. With only three MPs, it tried to take over the opposition frontbench but was widely opposed in this venture.
* N Lord Addison was not a member of the wartime coalition government. When Labour was part of the government from May 1940 until May 1945, Addison presumably functioned as a technical Leader of the Opposition, in the same way as the acting Leaders of the Opposition in the House of Commons.
* O Viscount Cranborne is the courtesy title of the heir to the Marquess of Salisbury. Two Lords Cranborne have been Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords. They sat in the House of Lords because of a
writ of accelerationaffecting one of the family Baronies.
* P Commonly the acting leader, following the death or immediate resignation of the leader, but according to the Labour Party constitution the actual leader until the next leader is selected. Before 1981 the leader, in opposition, was elected annually by the Parliamentary Labour Party. After 1981 the leader is elected by an electoral college at a party conference.
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
* "British Historical Facts 1760-1830", by Chris Cook and John Stevenson (The Macmillan Press 1980)
* "British Historical Facts 1830-1900", by Chris Cook and Brendan Keith (The Macmillan Press 1975)
* "His Majesty's Opposition 1714-1830", by Archibald S. Foord (Oxford University Press 1964)
* "History of the Liberal Party 1895-1970", by Roy Douglas (Sidgwick & Jackson 1971)
* "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography"
* "Twentieth Century British Political Facts 1900-2000", by David Butler and Gareth Butler (Macmillan Press 8th edition, 2000)
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