Baldwin in 1924

untitledThe  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.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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22 Responses to Baldwin in 1924

  1. Pingback: 1924 and All That | spinninghugo

  2. Kit Bird says:

    “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”

    The Commons Information Office have been reported as expressing a contrary position on this. See http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/05/if-queen%E2%80%99s-speech-amended-prime-minister-must-resign

    • Lord Norton says:

      An amendment to the Queen’s Speech as such does not require resignation of the Government. Rosebery’s Government was defeated on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech on 13 March 1894 and did not resign. It is not the fact of amendment as such that matters, but what the amendment says. Baldwin went in 1924 because the amendment expressed a lack of confidence in the Government.

      • Kit Bird says:

        “Baldwin went in 1924 because the amendment expressed a lack of confidence in the Government”

        That implies that Baldwin might not have resigned had the amendment not expressed a lack of confidence in the government.

        By extension, might Cameron refrain from resigning if a successful amendment to his Queen’s Speech did not express a lack of confidence?

      • Lord Norton says:

        Kit Bird: If an amendment did not express a lack of confidence, the PM could try to carry on, but in this situation it is not clear why an amendment would not be tabled expressing a lack of confidence.

  3. Kit Bird says:

    “it is not clear why an amendment would not be tabled expressing a lack of confidence.”

    Because the Speaker might not permit it to be tabled. See the article linked to in my original post.

    I have been trying for some time to get the CIO to confirm or deny the position attributed to them in the New Statesman piece. As a private citizen I am getting nowhere. Perhaps as a member of the Upper House you might have more success?

  4. Lord Norton says:

    There is nothing in the article suggesting that the Speaker would not select the amendment. If tabled by the Opposition, it would be selected.

  5. Kit Bird says:

    From the article “the Commons Information Office … has informed me that as a result of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a successful amendment to the Queen’s Speech is no longer regarded as a vote of no confidence in the government”

    How do you reconcile that position with the successful tabling of an amendment to the Queen’s Speech expressing a lack of confidence?

    • Lord Norton says:

      The statement has no bearing on whether an amendment is tabled to a Queen’s Speech. An amendment was tabled (by Conservative backbenchers) and voted on in 2013. An amendment would not constitute a vote of no confidence for the purposes of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act – it would not trigger the provisions of section 2 – but if expressing a lack of confidence in the Government then the Government would, under the extant convention, be expected to resign.

    • JH says:

      See also the Commons Library Note http://t.co/A9LGCbBcgC at 3.3 which, while not definitive, post-dates the New Statesman piece.

      • Kit Bird says:

        From that note: “This [the FTPA] would not appear to prevent other types of motions of censure from being debate [sic] or passed.”

        Never mind not definitive, that is positively fence-sitting!

        All the CIO would tell me was “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”. Which is also far from unequivocal.

  6. Kit Bird says:

    The statement does have a bearing because if an amendment saying, for example, “your Majesty’s present advisers have not the confidence of this House” is tabled and passed and is then not regarded as a vote of no confidence that creates a dilemma. Has the PM lost the confidence of the House or hasn’t he?

  7. Lord Norton says:

    It would be regarded as a vote of no confidence, but not one that would trigger the provisions of section 2 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. (The Information Office statement needed to make that point explicit.) The Act deals with the conditions under which elections take place. It limits what the Prime Minister can do in the face of losing the confidence of the House, but it does not affect the convention that the Government rests on the confidence of the House.

    • Kit Bird says:

      I understand and fully agree that such a vote of no confidence would not trigger s2 of the FTPA. I also accept that the FTPA does not affect the conventions of confidence.

      But would such an amendment mean that the government has in fact lost the confidence of the House, given that “a successful amendment to the Queen’s Speech is no longer regarded as a vote of no confidence in the government”?

      [To emphasise: the CIO reportedly said “…. no longer regarded as a vote of no confidence in the government” NOT “…. no longer regarded as a vote of no confidence for the purposes of the FTPA”]

      • Lord Norton says:

        The statement by the Information Office needs qualifying to establish that it is no longer a vote of confidence for the purposes of the FTPA. As I say, the convention that the Government rests on the confidence of the House remains.

      • Kit Bird says:

        (Sorry, seem unable to reply to your post of 3.50pm directly)

        I agree the CIO should clarify their statement as a matter of urgency. I am disappointed that they do not seem to be willing to do so.

        You are assuming that they meant “…. no longer regarded as a vote of no confidence for the purposes of the FTPA” and did not mean “…. no longer regarded as a vote of no confidence in the government”. You may of course be correct in this however I do not think it is an assumption that can be taken for granted.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Yes, no longer regarded as a vote of no confidence in the Government for the purposes of the FTPA. If a Government were to ignore a motion expressing lack of confidence, but couched in terms other than those stipulated in the FTPA, the House always has the sanction of utilising a vote of no confidence under the FTPA. However, as the Cabinet Manual makes clear, the convention that the Government rests on the confidence of the House remains extant.

  8. maude elwes says:

    Whether the Prime Minister has or has not lost the confidence of the House is really irrelevant. For, he has lost the confidence of the people. And they are the king makers, not the stooges placed in that house of treachery.

    Shock, horror, I just went to vote and the new style ballot boxes in there were a joke. Made of cheap plastic back pack fabric with zippers around the lid. LOL. And when someone asked how these boxes had zippers, the clown giving out the ballot paper said, with a stupid grin on its face, ‘oh, no they don’t.’ When the person insisted they did and pointed at the zipper and asked if she of the impression we were all blind, she siad, ‘well, the are sealed so that they cannot be opened until they are ready,’ Everyone in the room laughed out loud.

    So, get ready for a stunning outcome to this particular election.

    PS: And, I, being a citizen who lives in one of those famous ‘safe’ seats, had no real vote as a result. So, my only option was to place a cross besde the name of the one I felt had the best chance of getting rid of the creep they shoved on us. Lets hope a majority felt as I do. Otherwise we are once again stuck with a scoundrel.

    Another gripe is, when less than half the population turn out to vote for any given leader, that leader has no mandate. If anyone wanting to run a country cannot convince more than half its citizens to come and stand by him, then the end result is not a democratic response. It is not the fault of the public, it is the fault of those running this show.

    • Lord Norton says:

      maude elwes: Confidence is expressed through the House of Commons. The people elect the House of Commons.

      • maude elwes says:

        Yes, agreed and they did, even though with a slim majority. Which will prove awkward once the glow wears off.

        The Conservatives have a great deal to be thankful to UKIP and Farage for. Without his determination to raise issues no one before him would touch, this would not have gone the way it has. The public really had no other choice, unless they wanted a return to maximum PC inhibition once again. Not that we are free of it by any means.

        However, that said, it’s a relief to have an elected government with a mandate. The feel is palpable across the spectrum, even with the complainers.

        And, as a side bar, Mr Cameron is very fortunate indeed to have such a charming and very attractive wife at his side. If nothing more, they are a good looking couple to carry it off without that horrid sinking gringe you get from those who have no sense of appropriateness. As Mammy would say in, Gone With The Wind, they ‘don’t’ look like two mules in horses harness. LOL

  9. Kit Bird says:

    I agree that the Cabinet Manual makes clear that the convention remains that the government rests on the confidence of the house. However the Cabinet Manual does not offer any guidelines as to whether any particular motion is, or is not, a test of that confidence.

  10. Lord Norton says:

    Kit Bird: That’s not a new problem. See my article in ‘Parliamentary Affairs’. http://pa.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/03/29/pa.gsv003.abstract

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