As readers will be well aware, I have done various posts on the consequences of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, including one at the beginning of the month. In 2017, some thought the ease with which Theresa May gained a two-thirds majority for an early election meant that section 2 was a dead letter and that a Prime Minister could get an election whenever s/he wanted. However, events this year have borne out what I wrote in my 2016 Parliamentary Affairs article. The Opposition, and backbenchers, are, in effect, veto players.
They can prevent a two-thirds majority being reached for the motion ‘that there shall be early parliamentary general election’ and may do so by abstaining, as long as there is a division. The opposition has utilized this power twice recently.
Opposition parties can also opt to abstain in a vote on the motion ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’. By convention, if the Leader of the Opposition tables such a motion, the Government finds time for it to be debated. It is not obliged to find time if the leader of a third party tables such a motion and has previously declined to find time.
We are now in a bizarre situation in which we have a Prime Minister trying to provoke the tabling of such a motion and – with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declining to do so – indicating that, if a third party tables it, time will be found to debate it. Bear in mind that a motion of no confidence requires only a simple majority to carry. There is no threshold or turnout requirement. A confidence vote normally maximizes turnout, but it could be carried on low vote.
In present circumstances, we could thus end up in the situation where Government backbenchers are being encouraged to vote for a motion of no confidence in their own government and the opposition mobilizing its MPs to vote against to prevent it being carried. They may need to do so in some numbers if it looks as if the SNP will vote for the motion. Do ministers then vote for the motion as well – i.e. vote no confidence in themselves – to try to ensure it is carried?