Confidence motions and Parliament

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What does ‘confidence’ mean in parliamentary terms?

In the UK, governments continue as long as they have the ‘confidence’ or support of the House of Commons. This is tested through votes of confidence.

Governments do not always have to prove they continue to hold confidence, but, historically, governments would resign or seek an election if they lost 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 confidence. 

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 retain confidence through the number of seats they hold in Parliament.

Governments who have not won a majority 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.

Until recently, 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.

What is a confidence motion?

Historically 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 has often been implied in big set-piece votes like the Queen’s Speech or the Budget. And finally, governments could designate a particular vote as being a ‘matter of confidence’ – which means they would consider a defeat as a resigning matter.

All of these mechanisms were based on constitutional convention, but the convention has long been a central precept of the relationship between executive and Parliament. Parliament could force a government to go by continuing to withhold any further business, but more importantly there was a moral imperative for governments to resign.

How has the convention on confidence motions changed?

In 2011, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act put certain confidence motions on a statutory basis for the first time. This is because the Act defines how confidence motions can trigger an early general election. A vote of confidence to trigger an election under the act has to be worded in a very specific way: “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.”

If such a motion is lost by the government, there is a 14-day period in which a new government can be formed and try to pass a second confidence motion: "That this House has confidence in Her Majesty's Government."

What happens if there is a successful vote of no confidence in the government?

Does the Fixed-term Parliaments Act mean the old convention does not matter?

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act does not cover what happened to the old convention on confidence motions. It is down to Parliament and the government to interpret the old convention in light of the new circumstances.

As the House of Commons Library notes: "The consequences of a government losing what would have been considered a question of confidence before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act have not been tested since the Act was passed."

Some think that the new Act means only FTPA confidence motions matter. However, the confidence convention underpins the whole relationship between Parliament and the government. Losing a vote on a non-FTPA worded motion of confidence would still be an explicit statement from the Commons that it no longer had confidence in the government.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee has stated it considers the convention and principle behind it as remaining “fundamental to our system of parliamentary democracy”.

Can the opposition call a vote of confidence?

Yes. The opposition can table a vote of no confidence using the wording required under the FTPA which would trigger a general election. This is expected to be given priority by the government for a debate and vote in the House of Commons. In January 2019, it was held the next day.

The opposition can also put down motions of no confidence or censure which are worded in a different way. These votes are often worded to score political points as well as try to bring down the government, and their future use is uncharted territory. The Speaker, and clerks who advise the Speaker, should, by convention, accept such motions being tabled. What is less clear is how the government would view such a motion and whether and when they would timetable it for debate. In the end, it will again come down to how Parliament collectively interprets such a motion.

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

The ability to say that a vote would be a ‘matter of confidence’ was a useful weapon which prime ministers through the ages have used to keep their backbenchers in line.

Governments or prime ministers can resign or threaten resignation at any time. The difference now is that the government or prime minister cannot so easily threaten the dissolution of Parliament and an election. The choices that need to be weighed are very different from the days before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

On 3 September 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that a vote on taking over the parliamentary agenda to pass legislation that would force the government to seek an extension to Brexit was a ‘confidence matter’. The government removed the whip from those of its MPs who voted against it.

What happens if the government loses a ‘matter of confidence’ vote?

If a prime minister loses a 'matter of confidence' vote, they could not unilaterally call an election. They have four options, but what happens next also depends on the reaction in Parliament:

  1. Put forward a motion for a new election. This requires the votes of two thirds of all MPs under the FTPA.
  2. They or the opposition puts forward a motion of confidence under the FTPA. If the government loses, this would trigger a 14-day period after which there would be a second vote of confidence won or an election called. No-one has yet tried this mechanism, so it is possible that it could also lead back to option one or option four below.
  3. The prime minister simply resigns outright. The question then becomes about who is most likely to be able to command confidence in their stead. This would be determined through a combination of seat-share, agreements with other parties and discussions among politicians. The Queen should be kept out of any controversy and it is up to politicians to determine what happens next.
  4. Carry on governing – this depends on whether the options above fail and whether the opposition try to put down a more explicit confidence motion.
Update date: 
Friday, September 13, 2019