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Leader of the Opposition (United Kingdom)

The Leader of Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition (more commonly known as the Leader of the Opposition) is the politician who leads the official opposition in the United Kingdom. The Leader of the Opposition by convention leads the largest party not within the government: where one party wins outright this is the party leader of the second largest political party in the House of Commons. The current Leader of the Opposition is Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party, who was elected to the leadership of the Labour Party on 12 September 2015.

For there to be a recognised Leader of the Opposition, it is necessary for there to be a sufficiently cohesive opposition to need a formal leader. The emergence of the office thus coincided with the period when wholly united parties (Whig and Tory, governments and oppositions) became the norm. This situation was normalised in the Parliament of 18071812, when the members of the Grenvillite and Foxite Whig factions resolved to maintain a joint, dual-house leadership for the whole party.

Eventually they jointly recommended George Ponsonby to the Whig MPs, whom they accepted as the first Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons. Ponsonby, an Irish lawyer who was the uncle of Grey's wife, had been Lord Chancellor of Ireland during the Ministry of all the Talents and had only just been re-elected to the House of Commons in 1808 when he became leader. Ponsonby proved a weak leader but as he could not be persuaded to resign and the duumvirs did not want to depose him, he remained in place until he died in 1817.

Between 1821 and 1830 the Whig Commons leadership was left vacant. The leadership in the House of Lords was not much more effective: in 1824 Grey retired from active leadership, asking the party to follow the Marquess of Lansdowne "as the person whom his friends were to look upon as their leader". Lansdowne disclaimed the title of leader, although in practice he performed the function.

In 1830 Grey returned to the front rank of politics. On 30 June 1830 he denounced the government in the House of Lords. He rapidly attracted the support of opponents of the ministry. The renewal of organised opposition was also bolstered earlier in the year by the election of a new Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, the heir of Earl Spencer, Viscount Althorp.

The constitutional convention developed in the nineteenth century was that if one of the leaders was the last prime minister of the party, then he would be considered the overall leader of his party. If that was not the case then the leaders of both Houses were of equal status. As the monarch retained some discretion as to which leader should be invited to form a ministry, it was not always obvious in advance which one would be called upon to do so.

The Parliament Act 1911 removed the legislative veto from the House of Lords to permit the welfare-state forming Liberal legislation to be enacted by the Commons, the People's Budget and any future Money Bills without any input from the Lords. This therefore entrenched the de facto position that there could only be one true Leader of the Opposition and in effect clarified in which house that leader would need to sit. From this point, all Leaders of the Opposition in the House of Commons would thus be overall Leaders of the Opposition.

The Parliament elected in December 1918 which sat from 1919 until 1922, represents the most significant deviation from the principle that the Leader of the Opposition is the leader of the party not in government with the greatest numerical support in the House of Commons. The largest opposition party (disregarding Sinn Fein, whose MPs did not take their seats at Westminster), was the Labour Party which had wholly left the Lloyd George coalition and won 57 seats at the general election. Thirty six Liberals had been elected without coalition support however were mixed in their opposition to Lloyd George. The Labour Party did not have a leader until 1922. The Parliamentary Labour Party annually elected a chairman, but the party, due to its congressional origins, refused to assert a claim that the chairman was the Leader of the Opposition. Although the issue of who was entitled to be Leader of the Opposition was never formally resolved, in practice the Opposition Liberal leader performed most of the parliamentary functions associated with the office.

After the death of Lees-Smith, on 18 December 1941, the PLP held a meeting on 21 January 1942. Frederick Pethick-Lawrence was unanimously elected Chairman of the PLP and the official spokesman of the party in the House of Commons while the party leader was serving in the government. After the deputy leader of the party (Arthur Greenwood) left the government on 22 February 1942 he took over these roles from Pethick-Lawrence until the end of the coalition and the resumption of normal party politics.