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Caretaker government

The phrase ‘caretaker government’ describes a government that holds office subject to certain temporary restrictions on what it may do.

What is a caretaker government?

The phrase ‘caretaker government’ describes a government that holds office subject to certain temporary restrictions on what it may do, either during the pre-election period known as ‘purdah’ or because it may have lost the confidence of the House of Commons. ‘Caretaker government’ is not a formal government status, but the description is typically applied to such periods.

The UK has not developed comprehensive rules over the formation and operation of caretaker governments. The workings of caretaker governments are based on convention, as laid out in the 2011 Cabinet Manual.

The Cabinet Manual describes three scenarios in which the government would be expected to restrict its activity:

  1. During a general election campaign (previously known as purdah)
  2. If a vote of no confidence is passed by the House of Commons
  3. If an election produces an unclear result.

If a prime minister resigns from the leadership of their party triggering a succession contest, restrictions are not automatically applied to government operations – the government can continue in office with the prime minister remaining at its head until the conclusion of the leadership contest. Nevertheless, in recent years, convention has developed where some restrictions are likely to apply to the activities of government during this interim period.

What constraints to government apply during purdah?

From the start of the election period until polling day, restrictions are in place that require the government to limit themselves largely to ‘essential business’. Ministers, including the prime minister, remain in office but should not announce new policy, make new appointments, sign new contracts or take decisions of long-term consequence unless not doing so would be detrimental to public interest.

The enforcement of these restrictions is the responsibility of the prime minister but there are no explicit consequences for the government if they break these rules. Civil servants abide by the rules as part of their duties under the civil service code. Enforcing them is the job of permanent secretaries and the cabinet secretary.

What constraints to government apply after a vote of no confidence?

The Cabinet Manual states that exactly the same restrictions should apply to the government after a parliamentary vote of no confidence as they do during a general election campaign.

Since the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) in 2022, there is no specific period allotted for alternative government formation following a vote of no confidence. Instead, a government having lost a confidence vote would be expected either to resign in favour of an alternative government – this is very unlikely, as it would likely mean handing power to the opposition – or to request a dissolution of parliament from the King.

If parliament is dissolved, all MPs lose their seats and a general election is triggered. Government ministers remain in post, but must operate under the restrictions on government activity during an election campaign.

What constraints to government apply if an election produces an unclear result?

If an election result means that there is no overall majority, and there is ‘significant doubt’ over any party’s ability to command control of the Commons, the incumbent government is expected to continue to operate in a caretaker capacity until it is clear who can command confidence.

In this scenario, the extent of the restrictions is not clear. The Cabinet Manual states that ‘many’ of the same restrictions of an election or vote of no confidence will remain in place, but does not specify the differences.

What constraints to government apply if a prime minister resigns mid-term?

Prime ministers may resign mid-term without having lost a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. Boris Johnson resigned as leader of the Conservative Party in July 2022 after record-breaking ministerial resignations, but he continued to serve as prime minister until the appointment of his successor in September 2022.

The current version of the Cabinet Manual does not set out a specific convention that exists to restrict government activity in the period between the announcement of an intention to resign and the appointment of a new prime minister, but many other countries do apply caretaker principles in such circumstances.

Nonetheless, particularly where prime ministers have been forced from office by their party, some UK governments have chosen to operate under informal caretaker restrictions during such a period. Robert Buckland served as secretary of state for Wales during the final weeks of Boris Johnson’s government while the leadership contest was underway. He told the Institute for Government that he was “absolutely clear that we were not there to initiate new policy”, arguing that both he and Greg Clark (then levelling up secretary) had “come back in as experienced former cabinet ministers” only on that basis.

How long do caretaker restrictions last?

Restrictions on government activity during an election campaign cease to apply if a new or returned government wins a clear majority.

Following a vote of no confidence, restrictions cease to apply following either the appointment or the election of an alternative government.

How long do restrictions last if there is an unclear election result?  

How long a caretaker period lasts if there is no majority winner following an election result is not clear. This could prove controversial.

If an election is followed by negotiations to try to form a coalition or a confidence and supply arrangement, the restrictions are likely to remain in place. The incumbent prime minister would remain in post until their successor became clear – as happened in February 1974 and May 2010.

The Cabinet Manual states that “if there is no overall majority, for as long as there is significant doubt over the government’s ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons, many of the restrictions… [during purdah] would continue to apply.”

In 2010, Gordon Brown’s government followed this convention after the election result. During a meeting of European finance ministers the weekend after the 2010 election, Alistair Darling kept both shadow chancellor George Osborne and Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Vince Cable informed about progress of the talks. 4 Beaumont P and Traynor I, “Alistair Darling joins EU plan to rescue sinking euro”, The Guardian, 9 May 2010, retrieved 28 September 2022,

Could the caretaker principle be disputed?

There are some circumstances following an unclear election result where the caretaker principle is less clear.

An incumbent prime minister could attempt to stay on as a minority government and test the will of the House through a King’s Speech. Alternatively, a new minority government could be formed by the opposition, as happened in February 1974 when Harold Wilson replaced Edward Health as prime minister.

It is not clear that caretaker restrictions are expected to remain in place until the confidence of the Commons is demonstrated and it could take up to three weeks before a government is able to hold a King’s Speech vote.

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