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’ of Parliament. This means that a government  can continue to get its legislation through by having a majority of MPs or being able to bring together support from other parties.

Historically, governments would resign or seek a dissolution of Parliament if they ‘lost’ the confidence of the House of Commons. In between elections, losing confidence happens through particular votes, known as confidence motions. 

What is a confidence motion?

Until recently, there were different ways in which ‘confidence’ could be voted on. This might be through a motion that explicitly mentioned Parliament having confidence in the Government, tabled by the Government (a vote of confidence) or one tabled by the Opposition (a vote of no confidence). Confidence could also be 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 a resigning matter.

All of these mechanisms occurred by convention. The Government at the time was not legally required to resign or seek a dissolution of Parliament. But the convention was very strong. 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 a general election. A vote of confidence 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."

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

We are in uncharted territory. 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."

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

Some think that the new act means that the Government can ignore all other old forms of confidence motions. However, the old confidence convention was a device to demonstrate the view of Parliament. The convention underpins the whole relationship between Parliament and the Government. Losing a vote on Budgets or Queen’s Speeches, or other sorts of confidence motions, may still lead to a government resigning, but the circumstances and mood of Parliament would be just as relevant as historical precedent in determining how Parliament and the Government interprets all of this. 

Can the Opposition call a vote of confidence?

Yes. The Opposition can certainly table a vote of no confidence using the wording required under the act which would trigger a general election.

What is more complicated is if the Opposition wanted to put down a motion of no confidence or a censure which was worded in a different way. These votes have been used in many ways by opposition parties and often worded to score political points as well as try to bring down the Government. Future use of them is also uncharted territory. The Speaker, and clerks who advise him, would likely still accept the motion. The Government would then have to indicate its view of what such a vote means. 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 used by prime ministers down the ages to keep their backbenchers in line and say that "this vote really matters".

This weapon has not been lost since 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.

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

If the Prime Minister set up and then lost a 'matter of confidence' vote, they could not call an election unilaterally. They now have four options:

  1. Ignore what has happened and carry on governing (technically possible because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act perhaps, but a risk to constitutional propriety and parliamentary credibility).
  2. Put forward a motion for a new election requiring a two-thirds majority under the act
  3. They or the Opposition puts forward a motion of confidence under the act. 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.
  4. Either the Prime Minister or the Government simply resigns outright. If it is the former, they would need to be replaced by their party; if is the latter, the Queen would be advised to call on the Opposition to form a government.
Update date: 
Thursday, March 1, 2018