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It is a core convention of the UK’s constitution that the Government must be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. This convention governs both the appointment and resignation of Prime Ministers.
If a Government loses a confidence vote in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister will be expected either to resign, or to request a dissolution of Parliament from the Queen. If a dissolution is granted, it triggers a general election.
This Insight looks at how no confidence motions are drafted, past votes and what happens if a Government loses.
How is a lack of confidence demonstrated?
Confidence is demonstrably lost if the Government is defeated on a confidence vote.
Lord Norton of Louth, Professor of Government at the University of Hull, says there are three ways in which the House of Commons can express a lack of confidence:
- passing explicitly worded no confidence motions or rejecting explicitly worded confidence motions tabled by the Government
- defeating the Government when it has said that the vote is a matter of confidence
- implicit votes of confidence, notably on the Queen’s Speech and Budget. (Read more in The Fixed-term Parliaments Act and Votes of Confidence, Parliamentary Affairs, Volume 69, Issue 1, January 2016, pages 3–18)
The Joint Committee on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act scrutinised the Government’s draft Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (Repeal) Bill. In a March 2021 report, it set out its understanding of the conventions surrounding confidence in a government. It said that defeats on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech; on the second or third reading of the annual Finance Bill; or during the Supply and Estimates process, demonstrated an implicit lack of confidence.
Expressing no confidence
A vote of no confidence could be a simple motion that states “this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”. It could also:
- provide reasons for the loss of confidence and/or
- indicate the House’s preference for either a change of Government or the holding of a general election.
A motion that is merely critical of a government minister or a government policy is not typically regarded as a motion that tests the House’s confidence in the Government as a whole. In the March 2021 report, the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliament’s Act expressed the view that:
the Leader of the Opposition should ensure that the wording of the motion is clear: that it does indeed intend to test the House’s confidence in the Government, rather than simply to censure a policy or member of the Government.
Debating a motion of no confidence
The Government is expected to provide time for a debate if the Official Opposition tables a motion of no confidence in the Government. Erskine May, the authoritative guide to parliamentary practice, states:
By established convention, the Government always accedes to the demand from the Leader of the Opposition to allot a day for the discussion of a motion tabled by the official Opposition which, in the Government’s view, would have the effect of testing the confidence of the House. In allotting a day for this purpose, the Government is entitled to have regard to the exigencies of its own business, but a reasonably early day is invariably found.
The time taken to arrange debates on motions of no confidence (PDF) has ranged from one to seven days.
The Government is not expected to provide time for motions of no confidence tabled by other Opposition parties or by backbench MPs. Nor is it expected to find time to debate motions that are critical of Government policy or of individual ministers.
When was a Government last defeated by a ‘no confidence’ motion?
On 28 March 1979, the Labour Government was defeated on a motion of no confidence by 311 votes to 310. Following the result, Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, announced he would request a dissolution of Parliament and a general election.
Prior to that, two changes of Government followed defeats on votes of no confidence in 1924.
Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Party was the largest party following the December 1923 General Election but it did not have a majority. On 21 January 1924, Baldwin’s Government was defeated when an amendment to Address on the King’s Speech, expressing no confidence in the Government, was agreed.
On 22 January 1924, Stanley Baldwin told the House that following the vote in the House on the previous day, “the Government have tendered their resignation to the King”. He continued: “Members of the Government will retain their Seals until the new appointments have been made”. Ramsay MacDonald took office as the first Prime Minister of a Labour Government on the same day.
MacDonald’s Government in turn was defeated on a confidence issue on 8 October 1924. On 9 October, he told the House that he had requested a dissolution and a general election followed.
The Library briefing on Confidence motions includes a list of confidence motions – motions tabled by the Government seeking to confirm they retained the confidence of the House and motions of no confidence tabled by the Opposition.
About the author: Richard Kelly is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in parliamentary procedure.
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