The term 'payroll vote' has traditionally been used to describe MPs who hold positions from which they would have to resign in order to oppose the government. This includes paid and unpaid positions, and comprises positions across all seniority levels.
The term can also include roles which do not formally bind MPs to vote with the government, but may have been given out by the prime minister in order to reward or encourage loyalty. This is the wider payroll vote.
Ministers and parliamentary private secretaries comprise the traditional payroll vote. They are restricted from voting against the government or even "associating themselves with recommendations critical of or embarrassing to the government" by the ministerial code. This is called collective responsibility.
The ‘wider payroll vote’ is a relatively new phenomenon. It is comprised of the traditional payroll vote, as well as the prime minister’s trade envoys. It also includes Conservative Party vice-chairs, although there is no definitive list of MPs who serve as party vice-chairs.
Trade envoys are an unsalaried group of parliamentarians who work to promote the United Kingdom’s trade interests in specific markets. There are currently 34 trade envoys, 19 of whom sit in the Commons and 15 of whom sit in the Lords. Though they are a cross-party network, 15 of the 19 trade envoys in the House of Commons at present are Conservatives, as are the majority of those in the Lords. 13 GOV.UK, Prime Minister’s Trade Envoys, retrieved 15 September 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/trade-envoys
Trade envoys are appointed by the prime minister. The position is not technically required to support the government. However, some MPs have chosen to resign from these positions in order to oppose the government over issues of policy. For example, Andrew Percy resigned as trade envoy for Canada in 2019 in protest at the possibility of government preparation for a no-deal Brexit threatening the process of rolling over an existing trade deal with Canada.
This is not an obligation though: in November 2018, Ranil Jayawardena MP resigned as parliamentary private secretary to the Ministry of Justice’s ministerial team to vote against the prime minister’s Brexit deal but kept his position as the prime minister’s trade envoy to Sri Lanka.
There is no official public list of Conservative Party vice-chairs or deputy chairs. Press reports suggested that Boris Johnson appointed at least six vice-chairs in his first year in office, 14 Wallace M, ‘The Party’s new line-up of Deputy and Vice Chairmen’, Conservative Home, 5 August 2019, retrieved 13 September 2022, https://conservativehome.com/2019/08/05/the-partys-line-up-of-deputy-and-vice-chairmen/ but at least two of these vice-chairs resigned in 2021 and 2022 over Johnson’s standards scandals. 15 Ravikumar S, ‘British Conservative Party vice-chair Afolami resigns – report’, Reuters, 5 July 2022, retrieved 4 April 2023, www.reuters.com/world/uk/british-conservative-party-vice-chair-afolami-resigns-report-2022-07-05/ 16 Allegretti A, ‘Tory party vice-chair Andrew Bowie resigns in protest over sleaze’, The Guardian, 10 November 2021, retrieved 4 April 2023, www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/nov/10/tory-party-vice-chair-andrew-bowie-resigns-in-protest-over-sleaze
As of March 2023, the payroll vote is between 150 and 160 MPs, consisting of:
- 92 ministers (including whips) in the House of Commons
- 41 parliamentary private secretaries
- 15 Conservative MP trade envoys
- an unknown number of party deputy or vice-chairs.
The Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 limited the number of paid government ministers to 109, and the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 capped the number of ministers that could sit in the House of Commons at any one time at 95. The Ministerial and Other Maternity Allowances Act 2021 – which was introduced to allow then-Attorney General Suella Braverman to go on maternity leave – gives the prime minister the power to designate a pregnant minister as ‘minister on leave’. He can appoint someone to temporarily fill the vacant role and the minister on leave can continue to receive an allowance without counting towards the statutory limit on the number of paid ministers. The designation automatically lapses after six months.
The number of parliamentary private secretaries, trade envoys, vice-chairs and other positions that the prime minister can create is entirely unrestricted. Because of the implications this could have for parliament’s ability to scrutinise government, the Public Administration Select Committee recommended, in 2010, that the payroll vote should be limited to 15% of the membership of the House (98 with a Commons of 650 MPs).
A report written by the same committee the following year recommended that only secretaries of state should be allowed to have parliamentary private secretaries. Currently there are 41 PPSs – this would be reduced to just 18 if only ministers leading a department were permitted a PPS.
There has been a steady increase in the number of MPs who act as ministers and parliamentary private secretaries over the course of the 20th century, from 101 MPs in January 1960 to 133 MPs in March 2023.
An increase in the wider payroll vote was an innovation of Theresa May’s time as prime minister. She oversaw a threefold increase in the number of Conservative MPs in the House of Commons with trade envoy positions, without appointing a single non-Conservative trade envoy. She also expanded the number of MPs serving as vice-chairs.