The Role of Parliament in the UK Constitution Interim Report The Status and Effect of Confidence Motions and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 Contents

4How the convention on confidence in the Government operated before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011

36.While in countries with codified constitutions the rules for confidence votes are set out in law, in the UK they operated until 2011 solely on the basis of convention. The Clerk of the House told us that there were no formal procedures surrounding what are referred to as confidence motions; they are resolutions of the House and as such are expressions of “the House’s opinion” and have “political force”.34 Lord Norton of Louth has written that while before 2011 there was no legal or procedural requirement for a government to resign or a dissolution of Parliament to be sought following a vote of no confidence, the political consequences of not doing so would have made governing “virtually impossible”.35 He added that conventions such as those surrounding confidence “are complied with because of a moral imperative”; or, as David Feldman has written, “They are obeyed because they encapsulate right behaviour”.36

37.While there was no legal obligation on a government to follow the convention and resign or call a general election following a vote of no confidence, Dr Andrew Blick, Director of the Centre for British Politics and Government, King’s College London, told us that this would remove a convention without which “we are not a democracy”.37 A government which held office after its authority to govern was removed would be acting against the express will of the democratically elected House. Dr Blick continued “[a] Government has to command the confidence of the House of Commons, because that is the essence of our democracy.”38 A government continuing against the will of the House would also find it effectively impossible to govern, as Parliament controls the Government’s ability to raise taxes and spend money.

38.Before the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, there were three routes to address matters of confidence: motions of no confidence, motions of confidence, and motions on substantive issues to which the issue of confidence was attached.

Motions of no confidence

39.The first route was through explicitly-worded motions, usually initiated by the Opposition (as a potential Government in waiting), that sought to express the opinion of Parliament that the Government no longer has the confidence of the House. For example, on 28 March 1979, the Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, successfully moved the motion “That this House has no Confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”, which was agreed to and led to the General Election of 1979.39 Another example occurred on 27 March 1991, when the Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock, moved the motion “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government in the light of its inability to rectify the damage done to the British people by the poll tax”; though this time the vote was lost.40

Motions of confidence

40.The second route to addressing matters of confidence before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was through an explicitly-worded motion of confidence, initiated by the Government, which expressed the House’s confidence in Her Majesty’s Government. This route was often used when a government lost a vote of substance and wanted to re-establish its authority to govern. For example, on 14 September 1979, Prime Minister James Callaghan moved the motion “That this House expresses its confidence in Her Majesty’s Government and in its determination to strengthen the national economy, control inflation, reduce unemployment and secure social justice.” This followed two defeats the previous day on the Government counter-inflation policy.41 Similarly, in July 1993 Prime Minister John Major moved the motion “That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government on the adoption of the Protocol on Social Policy”, following a defeat the previous day in a vote on that policy.42 On both occasions the motion was approved by the House and the Prime Minister remained in office.

Confidence attached to substantive issues

41.The third route to addressing issues of confidence is when the question of confidence is attached to a motion on a substantive issue. This would occur where a government decided, and announced in advance, that a particular policy was so central to its programme for government that, if it failed to secure the support of the House in a motion concerning that policy, it would be difficult for the government to remain in office. In such cases before the FTPA, the Prime Minister made clear in advance that the consequences of losing such a vote would be either the resignation of the government or the dissolution of Parliament, followed by a general election (which was at the time within their power to do). Designating an issue as one of confidence in this manner maximised the government’s strength among its own numbers to pass a vote, as Members of Parliament in the governing party or parties were likely to want to avoid a resignation or especially a general election. For example, in 1972 Prime Minister Edward Heath indicated that, if the European Communities Bill was not given a second reading, he would seek a dissolution of Parliament.43

42.This category also includes what are sometimes called implicit votes of confidence, referring to notable votes such as those on the Queen’s Speech or the Budget. However, reservations have been expressed about the extent to which these votes actually test the confidence of the House, although in the case of the outright denial of supply by the House of Commons, continuation of the government would become impossible. A House of Commons Library Note describes as “speculative” whether these notable votes are tests of the confidence of the House in the same way as explicit motions of confidence.44


35 Philip Norton, “The Fixed Term Parliament Act and Votes of Confidence, Parliamentary Affairs, Volume 69 (2016), P 4

36 Philip Norton, “The Fixed Term Parliament Act and Votes of Confidence, Parliamentary Affairs, Volume 69 (2016), P 4–5; David feldman, ‘Constitutional Conventions’. In Qvortrup, M. (ed.) The British Constitution: Continuity and Change, (Oxford, 2016)

37 Q102 [Blick]

38 Q102 [Blick]

39 HC Deb, 28 March 1979, Col 461–590

40 HC Deb , 27 March 1991, Col 963–1053

41 HC Deb, 14 December 1978, Col 920–1049 [Commons Chamber]

42 HC Deb, 23 July 1993, col 625–724 [Commons Chamber]; HC Deb, 22 519–612 July 1993, col [Commons Chamber]

43 HC Deb, 17 Feb 1972, col 752–753 [Commons Chamber]

44 Confidence Motions, Standard Note SN/PC/2873, House of Commons Library 13 May 2013




Published: 11 December 2018