Just 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.