Today British Prime Ministers are elected by the party that forms the government, having won a majority of votes. It seems this was not always so. How we got here, however, seems to be by convention.

We know that George the III was able to select his own Prime Minister, William Pitt. This appears to be the result of a Constitutional Struggle.

Details on this Constitutional struggle are unclear. Was it decided by a High Court? Where were the precedents established?

My question is: How was George III able to appoint William Pitt as his Prime Minister?

  • 1
    Which one? Both William Pitt the Elder and William Pitt the Younger served under George III, along with several thousand others. Or are you more interested in the selection of 18th-century prime ministers in general?
    – Spencer
    Feb 28, 2017 at 1:57
  • I'm interested in the constitutional anomaly.
    – hawkeye
    Feb 28, 2017 at 3:32

1 Answer 1


In short, the King used his political muscle because he could, and because he wanted to. That and a bit of luck.

Things weren't quite so 'constitutional' then.

Remember that the "British Constitution" isn't a single document like the United States Constitution, but instead a grab bag of hidebound habits, and a series of royal and parliamentary ordinances, passed over time to eventually codify the habits.

The Monarch's primary power at the time was the control of patronage; that is, he was able to award offices, knighthoods, and peerages, and this was the typical lubrication used to get someone to vote for something back then. If the Prime Minister asked His Majesty nicely, His Majesty would grant someone a favor that would swing that someone to vote the way the Prime Minister wanted.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, The House of Lords could block anything the House of Commons passed; the only way to break a deadlock was for the Monarch to create peers to tip the balance. If he wanted to.

This actually happened in 1832 when William IV helped Earl Grey pass the Reform Act, finally doing away with rotten boroughs and other such corruptions of the democratic ideal.

It took the 1911 Parliament Act to finally rein in the House of Lords.

George III hated Charles Fox.

And vice versa. Whig politician Charles Fox was a firebrand reformer, denouncing the King's use of political muscle as creeping tyranny.

Fox opposed Tory PM Lord North all through the latter's tenure during the American Revolution. Although the Pitts had both argued for the things the American Colonies wanted, to keep them in the Empire, Fox took it a step further, wearing the colors of the Continental uniform to provoke the Tories and George.

Fox isolated himself politically and had to ally himself with a former enemy on the outs.

Lord North lost control of Parliament when Britain lost the Thirteen Colonies to revolution. But Fox refused to serve under North's Whig successor, Lord Shelburne because of a political slight the latter did to Fox's father back in 1763.

Fox and Lord North formed a coalition government without the King's requesting it.

At any rate, Lord Shelburne didn't live very long, and the two erstwhile enemies were able to get enough allies together to make a government under the Duke of Portland. The Fox-North Coalition was the first time a government was formed without the Monarch's request to form.

So George was not about to assist Fox. Fox tried to reform the East India Company, and George bullied the House of Lords into blocking the bill, which gave him a pretext to dismiss the Portland (Fox/North) government, and appoint 24-year-old William Pitt the Younger pending an election.


So Pitt was now Prime Minister and had the King's support and patronage. Fox had lost some popularity among reformers due to his alliance with Lord North, but he was still able to engineer a vote of no confidence. Pitt refused to resign.

And then one day, while returning from a ceremony granting him the Freedom of London, Pitt's coach was attacked while passing a Whig Club. People assumed that Fox had engineered it. Pitt's popularity caused candidates in the ensuing 1784 election to think twice about opposing him, and with George III's patronage, Pitt won.

  • One hole I noticed in here: I'm not an expert, but I believe the process is supposed to be that when a government falls, the monarch goes to the largest party in Parliament (often directly after the election) and requests they form a government. If they can't cobble together a majority, they go to the next largest, and so on. Point being, it is supposed to be the monarch that goes to someone and requests they form a government; they aren't just supposed to go do it on their own.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 28, 2017 at 14:47
  • @T.E.D. Nevertheless, the Wikipedia article on Fox says George was allowed no role, and there's an immediate citation to a 2007 book about Fox.
    – Spencer
    Feb 28, 2017 at 17:06
  • 1
    Right, which would reasonably have ticked him off, because the monarch is supposed to have a role (and I believe even to this day still does).
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 28, 2017 at 18:36
  • @T.E.D. It is possible to decide to have orange juice one morning instead of the coffee you normally have. Despite the fact that you own stock in a coffee company and its stock might go down.
    – Spencer
    Mar 3, 2017 at 16:22
  • 1
    I'm no expert in 18C British political history, and +1 for @Spencer ' analysis. However, the fact is that, even now, the Sovereign can"" appoint anyone as PM - only convention dictates that she *must appoint the person who can command a majority in Parliament. *Apropos, apparently HM was not amused after the recent hung parliament, when May stated "I have formed a government", instead of the formulaic "the Queen has asked me to form a government". Perversely (we Brits like to be perverse!) the British system is, to an extent, less "monarchical than, say, the US Presidency!
    – TheHonRose
    Feb 12, 2018 at 23:14

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