Head of a parliamentary government, usually the leader of the largest party. In countries with an executive president, the prime minister is of lesser standing, whereas in those with dual executives, such as France, power is shared with the president. In federal countries, such as Australia, the head of the federal government has the title prime minister, while the heads of government of the states are called premiers. In Germany, the equivalent of the prime minister is known as the chancellor.
The first prime minister in Britain is usually considered to have been Robert Walpole in the 18th century, but the office was not officially recognized until 1905. In recent years, the office has become increasingly presidential, with the prime minister being supported by a large private office and No 10 Policy Unit.
The term ‘prime minister’ is widely used in other countries. In those with parliamentary systems based upon or similar to the British model, such as a number of countries in Western Europe and the Commonwealth, the post is basically similar, but in some other countries, which do not have parliamentary systems, the head of government is also called prime minister. This is the case in France, which combines some features of a parliamentary system with an US-type presidential system of government.
In Britain and a number of other countries the term ‘premier’ is synonymous with that of prime minister.
The British prime minister
In the United Kingdom the prime minister is appointed by the sovereign, but in asking someone to form a government the sovereign is constitutionally bound to invite the leader of the party with a majority of seats in the House of Commons, a situation which is normally determined by a general election. If no party has a majority then the sovereign normally invites the leader of the party with the largest number of seats to form a government, and, failing this, may consult various party leaders and elder statesmen. If the prime minister dies or resigns between elections the sovereign waits until the party concerned has elected a new leader. All governmental appointments are made by the sovereign on the advice of the prime minister.
Sir Robert Walpole is widely regarded as the first prime minister, but Walpole's career set a precedent for the post rather than establishing it firmly as part of the machinery of government. The first prime minister in the modern sense was probably William Pitt, the Younger, who clearly established the role of the prime minister as the dominant figure in the cabinet.
The post of prime minister is largely the product of constitutional convention, although the office was recognized in formal precedence in 1905 and has been mentioned in various acts of Parliament since 1918. The prime minister normally holds the post of First Lord of the Treasury, and, in the past, sometimes held a major departmental portfolio. The last prime minister to do so was Sir Winston Churchill, who held the post of minister of Defence between 1951 and 1952, although Harold Wilson was minister for the Civil Service between 1968 and 1970.
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