What is a vote of no confidence?

Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics explains why confidence is such an important part of being Prime Minister and what might happen when it’s no longer there.

Being prime minister is all about confidence. In fact, the British constitution is held together by confidence. Being, and staying, prime minister means you have to ‘command the confidence of the House of Commons’. You don’t have to have a majority (though that’s always nice) but you do need to able to get your votes through. The Cabinet Manual, which sets out the rules as to how government runs, states that:

The Prime Minister is the head of the Government and holds that position by virtue of his or her ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons, which in turn commands the confidence of the electorate, as expressed through a general election.

So to be thrown out without an election, you need to somehow lose that confidence.

The main way this can be done is if the opposition passes and wins a vote of no confidence. If a prime minister loses such a vote then, technically, they’ve lost the magic ‘confidence’ and something has to happen, whether their resignation or an election. So far, so simple. So, to illustrate, Jeremy Corbyn has said if May loses her vote on her crucial bill next week, Labour will immediately call for a vote of no confidence in the government.

The government can also do the opposite and call for a motion of confidence in itself. This makes a vote crucial, and was a way of making sure it’s MPs supported them. This is a good discipline device and has been used by ‘prime ministers down the ages to keep their backbenchers in line and say that “this vote really matters”’. John Major famously did it over Maastricht, as a way of saying to his party: ’support me or we lose power’. Neither of these, by the way, should be confused with a party vote against its leader, of the type that fizzled out against May recently.

So far, so simple (ish). So why aren’t both sides throwing around confidence or no confidence motions every few months when things get sticky? One reason is that they are seen as a weapon of last resort. Another is that to win a vote you need the numbers, obeying Lyndon Johnson’s first rule of politics to ‘learn how to count’. Politically, you shouldn’t call one unless you are pretty sure you can win. So Labour can call for a vote of no confidence but whether they have the numbers to pass one is another matter.

Most importantly, do they work? Well, sometimes. The last successful no confidence vote was in 1979, which led to the end of James Callaghan’s government (the government lost by one vote, legend has it because one MP was in the pub and didn’t get back to the House of Commons in time). Before that you have to go back to 1924 when the first ever Labour Prime Minister, Birkbeck’s own Ramsay MacDonald, was forced out by one.

Then things get more complicated. The Fixed Term Parliament Act has limited how no confidence votes can be called. It also means that if a government loses a vote there is 14 days before another, after which an election is called if that’s lost too.

So, If May loses a Labour confidence, let’s say next Wednesday, what happens then? The next 14 days could be very messy and confusing. Probably she would resign as Prime Minister, though she could stay as a caretaker leader. Another possibility is that someone gets an early Christmas present, and steps in as a temporary Tory PM to cobble together enough support to carry on.  Where would Labour stand in all of this, and should Corbyn get a chance? Because the rules aren’t set, no one is quite sure. A week is a long time in politics. Two weeks could be even longer. Catherine Haddon, who you should follow on twitter, is best placed to explain all the scenarios.

So one outcome of the next few days could be a vote of confidence. Yet no one knows, with any confidence, what would happen next if it’s lost. And all the time, the clock is ticking on Brexit.

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The take-over: Prime Ministers without a popular mandate, 1916-2016

This post was contributed by Dr Benjamin Worthy, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics.This post first appeared on the LSE blog on 12 July 2016.

There are more or less two routes to becoming Prime Minister. You can either win a General Election or win a party leadership election to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves. Having just achieved the second route, Theresa May has become our ‘takeover’ leader. Here, Ben Worthy discusses the history of this route to power, its successes and – more often than not – its failures.

The table below shows the takeover PMs for the last 100 years, with the previous position, whether they won or lost the election, time in office, how they left office and their ranking as Prime Minister according to Professor Kevin Theakston’s 2004 expert survey.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1916-2016

[1] Pre 1965 Conservative party leaders were ‘chosen’ rather than elected
[2] Not included here is Ramsay MacDonald. He took over as Prime Minister in 1931 in charge of a national coalition government but, rather confusingly and controversially, took over from himself as Labour Prime Minister in the previous administration. He was ranked 14 in the survey.

What are the patterns from history?

One notable point is that takeover has been a very common route to the top. Of the 19 Prime Ministers from Lloyd George to David Cameron 12 have been, in some form and at some point, takeover PMs (counting twice Stanley ‘double takeover’ Baldwin).

May’s exact route, however, is rather unusual. Much has been made of May’s experience as the longest-serving Home Secretary since Attlee’s James Chute Ede (thanks to Gavin Freeguard from the Institute for Government, for putting everyone right). Interestingly, none of the other takeover Prime Ministers ever came to Downing Street directly from the Home Office, though two of them, Churchill and Callaghan, had been Home Secretaries in the past.

In terms of exit, Prime Minister May appears to have even chances of leaving office by election or resignation. Over the 12 takeovers 6 have resigned and 6 were defeated. The premiership of takeovers are relatively brief-their average time in office is a rather small 3.3 years.

Incoming Prime Minister Theresa May stands poised at the lecturn to give a speech

Theresa May – unopposed for the top spot (image; DFID – UK Department for International Development CC BY 2.0)

The big question is how such Prime Ministers are judged to have performed. Using Kevin Theakston’s rankings and Peter Hennessy’s ‘taxonomy’ of performance most takeovers don’t do well, and are in the lower reaches of the ranking. Only two of them, Lloyd George and Churchill, are truly ‘top flight’ or ‘weather-making’ leaders, though Macmillan comes close.

More worrying for Prime Minister May, the bottom 5 of the rankings are all takeovers. The nether reaches of Theakston’s table are full of names such Anthony Eden or Neville Chamberlain, both ‘catastrophic failures’ in crisis partly of their own making, and ‘overwhelmed’ leaders like John Major, who was famously told he was in ‘office but not in power’ (Arthur Balfour, not included here, also replaced Robert Cecil, his uncle, in 1902-hence the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’).

Dr Ben Worthy

Dr Ben Worthy

As the Financial Times said a new prime minister — now comes the hard part. Brexit, a divided country and the breaking up of Britain are huge challenges for any leader. Being Prime Minister is about the personality of the holder and much has been made of May’s competence and clarity. However, May’s habits of mulling over details is rather Brown-esque while her tactic of blaming others when things go wrong (just about) worked in the Home Office but is unlikely to do so in Downing Street.

Moreover, May has a slender majority in the House of Commons of 12 MPs and is inheritor of a rebellious party that has rebelled most over Europe and fears UKIP. Other recent takeovers like Callaghan, Major and Brown who headed similarly divided parties and faced deep crises became what Roy Jenkin’s called ‘suffix’ Prime Ministers, acting as historical codas to an era. We shall soon see if May joins the ‘weather-makers’ or the greatness of her office finds her out.

Note: This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck, University of London

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