Reply To: Lesson 3: Political parties

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Rose Lerner

I’m curious about the phrase “forming a government.”

Vicki–this is quite a complicated subject and I’m not up on all the ins and outs, so I’ll give a brief explanation and if that’s not sufficient, I recommend checking out that Jupp book on governance. The Age of Lord Liverpool also deals with this extensively.

Essentially, there is an expectation in the UK (unlike in the US) that the legislative branch will actually be able to pass legislation (at least in the Commons–obviously, the Lords are not elected so that complicates things). So the Prime Minister and his cabinet need to have the reliable support of the majority of the House of Commons. As I mentioned, in the UK “the government” typically refers to what we in the US would call “the current administration”.

If the government attempts to pass major legislation (especially legislation involving “supply”, meaning funding) and it is voted down, this could be enough for the PM to resign and call for a new general election (although usually there is a bit of wiggle room first). During the Regency, the Whigs were constantly trying to scrape together enough votes to defeat a big government bill. If they could follow this with a vote of no confidence (, they could bring down the government, hoping that a new general election would bring them to power.

In the Regency, the Prime Minister was typically chosen by the King. Because political affiliations were loose, he then had to form a cabinet of ministers who had the loyalty of various factions and voting blocs in both the Lords and the Commons, enough so that between them they could command a majority in the Commons (and hopefully in both Houses). He also had to make sure the individuals involved could (and would) be able to work together and that he offered the positions in a way that didn’t damage anyone’s ego. For example, if politician A felt he deserved a more prestigious cabinet position than politician B, and had been offered a less prestigious one, A might refuse to join the cabinet (especially if A and B didn’t really like each other). Sometimes politicians hated each other so much they refused to work together at all (peacemaking between Canning and Castlereagh was a constant problem for Lord Liverpool in forming his cabinets, because both men were competent and brought a lot of votes with them, but even though they were both friends with Liverpool, they hated each other). All this made the process of forming a government very delicate and complex.

When one party had gained a clear majority in a general election, this was easier. If that wasn’t the case, then the prospective PM had to try to form a coalition government with a minority faction (this is usually what causes problems in modern parliamentary systems; if one party does not get a 50%+1 majority of seats, the biggest party need to form a voting bloc with enough smaller parties to create one, and that usually means compromising on important ideological positions).

If the chosen PM couldn’t make it work, the King might invite another politician to try to form a government and become PM. (Sometimes, the King would refuse to consider someone for PM or the cabinet out of personal hatred, even when that person was really entitled to the position based on his leadership of a large party or faction, and even when a functional government was difficult or impossible to form without him).

If no one could form a government, a new election would have to be called.

This Wikipedia page on the 1783 Fox-North coalition (during the peace negotiations with the new United States) gives you a good picture of the kind of maneuverings involved:

Rose Lerner | Instructor, "Women in Regency Politics"


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