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Confidence motions and parliament

What does ‘confidence’ mean in parliamentary terms?

Westminster

What does ‘confidence’ mean in parliamentary terms?

UK governments continue in office only as long as they have the ‘confidence’ or support of the House of Commons. This means that they are able to command a majority in the Commons on key matters.

Governments do not always have to prove they continue to hold confidence, but governments are expected to resign or seek an election if they clearly lose the confidence of the House of Commons.

In between elections, losing confidence happens through particular votes, known as confidence motions, or if a government determines that it can no longer command the confidence of the Commons (for example, if it loses a vote on a major policy issue that is a core part of its agenda).

Why does confidence matter?

As the Cabinet Manual states: ‘The government of the day holds office by virtue of its ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons’. Majority governments are assumed to have confidence through the number of seats they hold in parliament. Prime ministers are appointed on the basis of their ability to command confidence.

Governments who have not won a majority at a general election or who lose their majority through the course of a parliament might either form a coalition or a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with other parties to maintain confidence, but minority governments can still govern as long as the Commons has not voted no confidence in them.

Confidence also symbolises the importance of government being continuously held to account by parliament, which can ultimately remove government from office. 

Historically, this central requirement to have confidence has been guided by constitutional convention. It was strongly expected that a government would resign or seek an election if it lost confidence. This changed with the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) in 2011, which set out and formalised a narrower range of ways for an early election to be triggered – including the passage of a specifically-worded motion of no confidence. However, the FTPA was repealed by the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022, meaning that it no longer has effect. The rules around confidence motions and early elections have now reverted to the system in place prior to the passage of the FTPA.

What is a confidence motion?

There are different ways in which ‘confidence’ can be voted on. This might be through a motion that explicitly mentioned parliament having confidence in the government, either tabled by the government (a vote of confidence) or by the official opposition (a vote of no confidence).

Confidence is also implied in big set-piece votes like the King's Speech or the budget – because if the government cannot win a vote on such core parts of its agenda, it suggests that the Commons may not have confidence in the government as a whole. But, unlike specific votes of confidence, this is not guaranteed. It is likely that a defeat in either would need to be followed by an explicit vote of confidence, unless the government chose to respect the principles and resign or call for dissolution anyway.

Governments can also themselves designate a particular vote as being a ‘matter of confidence’ – which means they would consider the vote to be so important as to show whether they have confidence. All of these mechanisms are based on constitutional convention, but these conventions have long been a central precept of the relationship between executive and parliament.

How do confidence motions happen?

Motions that express a view about the House’s confidence in the government can come about in several ways. The opposition can table a no confidence motion directly, or put down an amendment to an existing government motion. As discussed, the government can also designate a forthcoming vote ‘a matter of confidence’.

A confidence motion tabled by the official opposition is expected to be given priority by the government for a debate and vote in the House of Commons. In January 2019, when Labour brought a confidence motion in Theresa May’s government, it was held the next day.

Other parties might attempt to table confidence motions but there is no convention that these have to be given priority by the government and they usually do not go to a vote unless the official opposition seeks to support them.

Historically, votes can take different forms. Erskine may describes them as ‘a motion… expressing lack of confidence in the Government or otherwise criticising its general conduct’. However, usually and more recently they would contain the words ‘this House has no confidence in His Majesty’s Government’ or similar. As the government makes the initial determination whether the motion meets the criteria of a vote of confidence, unambiguous wording is less likely to allow doubt to creep in.   

How can the prime minister use ‘matters of confidence’?

The government might bring about a confidence vote, usually by designating a key vote as a ‘confidence matter’. This is a means of exerting pressure on MPs to vote with the government on a specific issue. If the vote is lost, the government might resign office, but more likely the prime minister would call for a dissolution of parliament. It is therefore a high risk strategy for a prime minister, facing party disunity, to threaten their own MPs with a general election. In 1993, John Major, seeking to force his party’s eurosceptics into line, told them that a vote on the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty would be designated a confidence motion.

Under the FTPA, votes of confidence became more complicated, since only an explicitly worded confidence motion or a vote for the dissolution of parliament could trigger a general election. On 3 September 2019, then prime minister Boris Johnson declared that a vote organised by MPs to take over the parliamentary agenda, in order pass legislation that would force the government to seek an extension to Brexit, was a ‘confidence matter’. The government lost the vote and removed the whip from 21 MPs who voted against it. But it was unable to pass a subsequent motion to seek a general election.

What happens if a government loses a confidence vote?

If a government loses a confidence motion it can either resign in favour of an alternative government taking office or it can seek a dissolution. Although prime ministers have many times resigned office in the past, it  is more likely now that they would seek a dissolution rather than hand the reigns to the opposition party. In the last four occasions when governments have lost confidence motions, they twice led to the resignation of the government (in 1895 and January 1924) and twice to requests for a dissolution (October 1924 and March 1979).

Can confidence motions be amended?

Generally no. In 1976 the Speaker said that he would not allow an amendment to a tabled vote of confidence because of the convention that gave precedence to the official opposition, and ‘to allow an unimpeded and clear decision to be taken for and against the motion’. 4 researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN02873/SN02873.pdf  However, there are several examples of past motions of no confidence that the government defeated through passing an alternative amendment.  

What about confidence in specific ministers?

Confidence motions are generally considered to be a test of the government as a whole. Motions that focus on particular minister, even the prime minister, do not have to be given precedence, though opposition parties could use opposition days in order to pass such a motion.  

How do confidence motions differ from other censure or contempt motions?

Motions of censure are a broad type of motion that can be tabled by MPs to criticise a particular government policy, government minister (including the prime minister), or the government as a whole. They are usually tabled as Early Day Motions. Unlike confidence motions, the government is under no obligation to find time for MPs to debate and vote on them.

Legislature
House of Commons
Publisher
Institute for Government

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