Public Affairs

The machinations of confidence

Recent times have seen much attention given to questions of political confidence, thanks to successive months of chaotic Brexit negotiations, a torn Conservative Party and a failed no confidence motion from Tory rebel, Jacob Rees-Mogg. agendaNi reviews the mechanisms behind the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (2011).

Before the 2011 passage of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, motions of no confidence in the prime ministerial office and the implications of governmental defeat were considered matters of convention. Indeed, on two occasions since 1895, the loss of a no confidence motion by the Government prompted those prime ministers to call an immediate general election. However, more recent legislation provides specification around wording which could trigger a general election, whilst also providing for five-year intervals between general elections. Prior to the Bill’s passage, whether a vote entailed a motion of no confidence had to be specified in the House of Commons ahead of the vote.

A constitutional adhesive

The origins of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act can be traced back to the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Upon entering coalition in 2010, Lib Dem concerns surrounded the possibility of Cameron calling an early general election. The Act was conceived as a constitutional adhesive, constraining the ability of any party to withdraw via the channel of a general election. Whilst consolidating the party’s role within the coalition, the Act also fulfilled the function of fixing parliamentary term length, removing the ability from the Prime Minister to time an election at times of positive opinion polls. At the time of passage, this was recognised as fulfilling one of the Lib Dems’ long standing political objectives.

Retrospective analysis has suggested that the Act fundamentally altered the power dynamics between parliament and government. The Act removed the ability of parliament to dissolve the Government, replacing that mechanism with a two-week period in which a new government can be formed. The two-week period was criticised as a vague provision which guaranteed protection for the sitting government: where governments could previously be dissolved, critics saw new legislation as allowing them to simply reformulate after a short period.

Weakened governments

Governments have lost votes of no confidence on four occasions since  1985, when the torn and heavily weakened Liberal Government under the leadership of Archibald Primrose faced a motion in opposition to the Prime Minister’s reducing of the Minister of State for War’s salary. Reflecting on this period, legal scholar Basil Markesinis described the situation facing Primrose: “They [the government] had had a very bad week with various defeats and very small majorities… it would be very humiliating to go on with the certainty of being defeated sooner or later; and … it was very bad for the country, as well as for our foreign relations, to have such a small majority”.

Tory rebel Jacob Rees-Mogg denied claims that he was instigating a coup after submitting a letter of no confidence in Theresa May’s premiership. Credit: Kent College.

Markesinis’ analysis of a historic parliamentary crisis closely mirrors the December 2018 victory of Prime Minister Theresa May, who narrowly avoided defeat after a no-confidence vote proposed by Tory rebels failed, with the Cabinet surviving with a narrow majority of only 83 votes. Described as a ‘pyrrhic victory’ for the Prime Minister, results from the December motion place the Conservative leader in a wounded position, with little prospect of securing support of a Brexit deal in its current form. A humiliating win from an embattled Prime Minister, who pledged not to lead the party into the next general election (scheduled for 2022).

Circumstances for election

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act sets the date of next and subsequent general elections. Whilst establishing five yearly intervals, the legislation does allow for early elections in only two circumstances:

  1. If a motion for an early general election is agreed either by at least two-thirds of the whole House (including vacant seats) or without division or;
  2. If a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the Commons within 14 days by means of a confidence motion.

If this motion is carried, there is a 14-day period in which to form a new government, confirmed in office by the following resolution: “That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”. If a new government cannot be formed within this time, then dissolution is triggered, with no provision for an extension of the 14-day period. However, 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.

A debate on a confidence motion will generally take precedence over the normal business for that day. A debate on a confidence motion will usually include speeches (normally the opening speeches) by the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition.

During the short 1974 Parliament, the Labour Government lost seventeen divisions, and between the second 1974 election and dissolution in 1979, it lost a further forty-two divisions and several major Bills. Even the Thatcher Government, with its large majority, was defeated at the Commons Second Reading of the Shops Bill in 1986. None of these legislative defeats were treated as matters of confidence by Labour or Conservative governments, as Brexit has recently been treated under the May Government.

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