The BBC News website carries a briefing on Election 2015: Q&A – what happens if no one wins? Although useful, it contains a few errors or questionable interpretations. In particular, it says ‘The prime minister could resign, after being defeated on the Queen’s Speech for example, and hand power to the leader of the opposition, who would attempt to govern until 2020. This raises the prospect of a change of governing party without an election – something that has never happened in Britain and would be likely to trigger a constitutional crisis.’
A switch of government, with no election, following defeat on a Queen’s Speech – something that has never happened?
In the December 1923 general election, the Conservatives under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin lost seats (having had a clear majority in the previous Parliament), but remained the largest single party. (The Conservatives won 258 seats, Labour 191, and the Liberals 158.) Rather than resign, Baldwin decided, as we entitled to do, to face the new Parliament and introduce a King’s Speech. An amendment was moved from the Opposition to add the words : ‘But it is our duty respectfully to submit to your Majesty that your Majesty’s present advisers have not the confidence of this House’. (For the debate, see HC Deb. 21 January 1924, vol. 169, cols. 532-685.) The amendment was carried, Baldwin resigned, and the King invited the Labour leader, J. Ramsay MacDonald, to form a Government, which he did. The country thus acquired its first Labour Government. Labour governed as a minority. The Liberals did not seek any agreed terms for supporting the government. As Robert Blake wrote, ‘As it was they supported Labour from an entirely independent position, with no written treaty, not even an informal understanding. Those Liberals who hoped for tacit, unspoken cooperation were soon disillusioned. There was none.’
The Government did not last long. In the October, it decided to treat an amendment to a motion of censure on the Campbell case as a vote of confidence and, when it was carried, MacDonald was granted a dissolution. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, that would no longer be possible. The PM could still tender the Government’s resignation, but he could not request a dissolution. The House could still express its lack of confidence in the Government in the same way that it did in January 1924 in that the wording of the amendment to the Queen’s Speech would demonstrate a lack of confidence, but would not trigger a general election as the wording is not that stipulated under section 2(4) of the Act. The wording has to be precise to count.
Much of the current debate about what may happen in the general election and in its wake lacks historical depth. Lack of knowledge of what happened in 1924 is just part of it.