From which post was Damian Green sacked? The newspapers don’t seem to agree. Stephen Thornton and Jonathan Kirkup explain the historical development of the role of Deputy Prime Minister and its complexities, and give their own list of contenders over the years based on a combination of key criteria.

And so farewell, from the cabinet table at least, Damian Green. His political obituaries have been written, describing his achievements and misfortunes, and often describing him as Theresa May’s closest ally. However, about one issue there is confusion in the various headlines. What post was he actually sacked from? For The Times, The Sun and The Metro Green was simply ‘Deputy PM’; for the Financial Times he was ‘the de facto deputy prime minister’, while The Guardian plumped for ‘first secretary of state’ (all taken from front pages, 21 December 2017). So why the variation and equivocation?

Green certainly fulfilled various tasks often associated with being a deputy. He was the figure, since June 2017, who was looked to ‘mind the shop’ while the PM was unavailable, for example taking PMQs in May’s absence. More significantly, he was a mostly off-stage manager of government, a ubiquitous figure on cabinet committees, and a key fixer of the deal between the Conservatives and the DUP. So clearly he was DPM then?

Alas it is impossible to provide a clear-cut answer. In a constitution famous for its slippery qualities, the position of deputy to the British PM is a particularly lubricious one. Certainly, ever since Winston Churchill styled Clement Attlee ‘Deputy Prime Minister’ in 1942, a number of senior politicians have sported the title. But the post itself is something of a chimera, possessing no seal of office and having never been officially recognised by the monarch. Indeed, the position of deputy prime minister, is, as constitutional expert Lord Hennessy has pointed out, ‘unknown to the constitution’.

The monarchic myopia about the position began in the reign of George VI. When asked by Churchill in 1951 to formalise the established convention of naming a deputy (with Churchill’s long-suffering ‘crown prince’ Anthony Eden in the frame for the position), the King refused. Indeed, he instructed that the offending title be struck from Eden’s official job portfolio, leaving him merely Foreign Secretary. Archive sources reveal that the King believed that officially designating a deputy impinged on his right, through Royal Prerogative, freely to choose the prime minister’s successor.

The next time a PM wanted to try to formalise the position of second-in-command was in 1962. Harold Macmillan was keen to provide R.A. (‘Rab’) Butler a title to reflect his seniority (in part to secure Butler’s support at a difficult time). However, Macmillan was equally keen to avoid constitutional embarrassment with George’s successor, Elizabeth II, thus he sidestepped pushing the problematic title of deputy prime minister, and instead created the post of ‘First Secretary of State’. Macmillan then made it clear to the press that, as first secretary, Butler foremost function was to act as his deputy prime minister.

Now, Damian Green was incontestably first secretary of state, a vague but constitutionally secure position which comes with its own seal of office. So, does that necessarily mean Green was ‘acting as’ DPM for Theresa May? Regrettably, no. Though the possession of the title first secretary remains useful as a seniority signifier since Butler’s day, the title alone does not definitively identify the person acting as prime minister’s deputy. For example, Barbara Castle was first secretary from 1968-1970, but there was no attempt to recognise her as Harold Wilson’s deputy. Similarly, William Hague was David Cameron’s first secretary from 2010 to 2015, but Nick Clegg was the one styled deputy prime minister.

Looking at lists of deputies complied by various constitutional experts provides clues as to whether Green deserved the epithet ‘deputy prime minister’, though it also adds to the mystery. For example, in 2010, the Parliament and Constitution Centre produced what might be considered the current ‘official’ list. To circumvent the position’s constitutionally phantom status, they deftly explained that the list consisted of ‘those who have been recognised by the Prime Minister as Deputy Prime Ministers’. However other lists contain different names. For example, one compiled by Anthony Howard in 1995 included the mercurial George Brown (Wilson’s initial first secretary), but omitted others, such as Anthony Eden.

To try to provide an element of rigour to the process, we developed a fresh list which is a synthesis of the existing registers, and uses identified criteria. These are a) gazetted in The Times or styled in Hansard as deputy prime minister; b) referred to as deputy or second in command by the relevant prime minister in a published work; c) widely recognised by colleagues as deputy; d) established as second in the cabinet order of precedence; e) chaired the Cabinet or PMQs in the PM’s absence. Unlike other registers, this table suggests that, in the absence of statutory status, the best that can be achieved in terms of picking out deputies is to highlight potential likely contenders for the unofficial position.

Table 1. Contenders to be considered deputy prime minister since 1942

PM and tenureGazetted in The Times or styled in Hansard as DPMReferred to as deputy, or equivalent, by PMWidely acknowledged to be deputy by colleagues or official briefing2nd in the Cabinet order of precedence Chaired cabinet or PMQs in place of PM
Winston Churchill (1940-1945)Clement Attlee (1942-1945)Clement Attlee (1940)Clement Attlee (1940)Neville Chamberlain (1940)

Clement Attlee (1940-1945)

Anthony Eden (1945)
Neville Chamberlain (1940)

Clement Attlee (1940-45)
Clement Attlee (1945-1951)Herbert Morrison (1945-1951)Herbert Morrison (1945-51)Herbert Morrison (1945-51)Herbert Morrison (1945-51)
Winston Churchill (1951-1955)Anthony Eden (1951-1955)Anthony Eden (1951-55)Anthony Eden (1951-1955)Anthony Eden (1951-1955)

R.A. Butler (1953)
Anthony Eden (1955-1957)Marquis of Salisbury (1955-1957) R.A. Butler (1955-1957)
Harold Macmillan (1957-1963)R.A. Butler (1962-1963)R.A. Butler (1957-1963)R.A. Butler (1957-1963)R.A. Butler (1957-1963)
Alec Douglas-Home (1963-1964)R.A. Butler (1963-1964)
Harold Wilson (1964-1970)George Brown (1964-1968)

Michael Stewart (1968-1970)
George Brown (1964-1968)

Michael Stewart (1968-1970)
George Brown (1964-1968)

Michael Stewart (1968-1970)
George Brown (1964-1968)

Michael Stewart (1968-1970)
Edward Heath (1970-1974)Reginald Maudling (1970-1972)

Alec Douglas-Home (1972-1974)
Reginald Maudling (1970-1972)

Alec Douglas-Home (1972-1974)

Willie Whitelaw (1973-1974)
Harold Wilson (1974-1976)Edward Short (1974-1976)Edward Short (1974-1976)Edward Short (1974-1976)
James Callaghan (1976-1979)Michael Foot (1976-1979)Michael Foot (1976-1979)Michael Foot (1976-1979)
Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990)Willie Whitelaw (1979-1988)Willie Whitelaw (1979-1988)Willie Whitelaw (1979-1988)

Lord Mackay of Clashfern (1986-1988)
Willie Whitelaw (1979-1988)
Geoffrey Howe (1989)Geoffrey Howe (1989-1990)Geoffrey Howe (1989-1990)Geoffrey Howe (1988-1990)

Lord Mackay of Clashfern (1990)
Geoffrey Howe (1989-1990)
John Major (1990-1997)

Michael Heseltine (1995-1997)

Michael Heseltine (1995-1997)

Michael Heseltine (1995-1997)
Lord Mackay of Clashfern (1990-1995)

Michael Heseltine (1995-1997)

Michael Heseltine (1995-1997)
Tony Blair (1997-2007)John Prescott (1997-2007)John Prescott (1997-2007)John Prescott (1997-2007)John Prescott (1997-2007)John Prescott (1997-2007)
Gordon Brown (2007-2010)

Peter Mandelson (2009-2010)
Alistair Darling (2007-2009)

Harriet Harman (2009-2010)
Jack Straw, Alistair Darling, Harriet Harman (2007-2010)
David Cameron
Nick Clegg (2010-2015)Nick Clegg (2010-15)Nick Clegg (2010-2015)Nick Clegg (2010-2015)

George Osborne (2015-16)
Nick Clegg (2010-2015)

George Osborne (2015-16)
Theresa May (2016-)

Damian Green (2017)
Phillip Hammond (2016-17)

Damian Green (2017)
David Lidington (2016-17)

Damian Green (2017)

Based on this table, Attlee, Morrison, Eden, Butler, Brown, the largely unheralded Michael Stewart, Whitelaw, Howe, Heseltine, Prescott, and Clegg have the best claim to be regarded deputy prime ministers. With three out of the five criteria filled, Damian Green’s case isn’t as good as these (notably May did not refer to Green as her deputy in any sense in her response to his resignation letter) but it remains a decent one – albeit based on a very short tenure in ‘office’.


Note: to read more about the history and purposes of this constitutional oddball (DPM, not Green), see the author’s recent article in British Politics; and Thornton and Kirkup, The Deputy to the British Prime Minister: A Mystery of Role, Responsibility and Power, Routledge, forthcoming).

About the Authors

Stephen Thornton is Senior Lecturer in the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University.



Jonathan Kirkup is Lecturer in Politics in the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Number 10, Flickr/BY-NC 2.0.

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