Fixed-term Parliaments and votes of confidence

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAJust over a week ago, I was speaking at a conference in Oxford held to discuss the passage and consequences of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.  My paper addressed the Act and votes of confidence.  There were notable changes in the move from the commitment in the Coalition Agreement to the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and in the passage of the Bill.

The agreement made no reference to votes of confidence.  The Bill as introduced included votes of confidence, seeking to maintain the previous forms of votes of confidence – explicitly worded votes of confidence, those to which confidence attached by declaration of the Government, and those deemed to be implicit votes of confidence.  There was no definition of a vote of confidence – it was to be determined by a certificate of the Speaker.  This created substantial potential problems, with the result that the Government accepted a backbench amendment that provided that a vote of confidence was confined to an expliclity-worded vote of confidence (‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’).  If passed, and if within 14 days a new (or reconstituted) Government cannot be formed a gain a vote of confidence, a general election takes place.

The changes to the Bill had the effect of removing a significant power from the Prime Minister.  He can no longer say ‘confidence attaches to this issue and if defeated on it, an election will follow’.  The premier is thus denied an important means of maximising voting strength.  The reult is not to strengthen the House of Commons – it already had the power to carry a vote of no confidence – but recalcitrant backbenchers.  This could prove a major problem in the event of a serious split in the Government’s ranks on an issue central to its programme.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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7 Responses to Fixed-term Parliaments and votes of confidence

  1. AndrejNkv says:

    It’s something of an aside, but one wonders whether the loss of such a major power (that of calling an election) will make the Prime Minister even less likely to give up or moderate yet another major power – that of patronage to the Upper House – which is one of the more immediate problems facing Parliament.

    It looks a bit like the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was a solution looking for problems – a task at which it has sadly excelled…

  2. I think this may have come up before in a discussion I have not searched for but the fixed term changes quite a bit to the degree the PM and cabinet now derive authority from a separate legal regime rather than the will of the legislative assembly (Parliament) and the Sovereign permission of the Monarch. The executive emerges from the old mix but continues as an autonomous branch.

    Where that occurs the clear possibility of impeachment is the usual remedy for problems you may not yet have. This is relevant here as it often is where a vote of no confidence is not in the nature of things:
    http://franksummers3ba.com/2014/11/07/the-age-of-obama-the-year-6-ao/

    • Lord Norton says:

      franksummers3ba: Government still rests on the confidence of the House of Commons; what differs is how that can now be expressed. Impeachment is less relevant in the UK context in that ministers can be removed by the PM and the PM can be removed by pressure from within the party.

      • Lord Norton,
        I concede, concur and congratulate your noting the profound difference between the types of parties on either side of this system divide. I also applaud the use of the word “less” instead of “no” . I think the difference between our two countries is greater than the difference between the two sides of the fixed term act. But I still think it’s a good idea to recognize the way the Act has affected the legal regime under which power is exercised.

  3. maudie33 says:

    In a democracy, it is imperative to have a passage that gives any party the right to call for a no confidence vote. And my reason for that is, look at what happened in the Ukraine. Had the people of that country, or their opposing party, had a path to no confidence, civil war would not have been a necessity. The US/EU/UK interference aside.

    How this government has managed to get away with this five year hold without having to face the chant of ‘no confidence’ is an enigma. And worse, it encourages a sanctimonious attitude in the party that is ruling. They fear nothing for five years. Which could lead to a very nasty situation. However, that would be the occurrence in a true democracy, not in what we presently appear to have, a one party state. .

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