Vote of no confidence: a brief history

What does a vote of no confidence mean, when was a vote of no confidence first used, and which prime ministers in history have fallen victim? Professor Richard Toye, head of history at the University of Exeter, explains how a vote of no confidence works, when it was first used and when it last led to a general election...

A portrait of prime minister Lord Frederick North. His government was the first to be brought down by a vote of no confidence, in 1782. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

What is a vote of no confidence?

There are two types of votes of no confidence: one, in the party leader – which is what Theresa May faced in December 2018 – the other is a parliamentary no-confidence vote, which signifies that the government itself has lost the support of the Commons.

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Under the internal rules of the Conservative Party, a vote of no confidence in the party leader is triggered in the event that at least 48 Conservative MPs (15 per cent) write to Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, formally calling on the party leader to stand down. The 1922 committee is a committee of all backbench Conservative MPs that meets weekly when the Commons is sitting.

It was announced in December last year that Brady had received at least 48 letters of no confidence in the prime minister from Conservative MPs. Conservative MPs then voted in a secret ballot – May survived that confidence vote with a majority of 83.

Prime minister Theresa May makes a statement outside Downing Street after it was announced that she will face a vote of no confidence, 12 December 2018. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Prime minister Theresa May makes a statement outside Downing Street after it was announced that she will face a vote of no confidence, 12 December 2018. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Speaking ahead of that confidence vote, Prof Richard Toye warned it was “purely an internal party leadership challenge. Even if May survives, she faces a possible further threat: a parliamentary no confidence vote”.

So what exactly is a parliamentary no confidence vote? A motion of no confidence, or censure motion, is a motion moved in the House of Commons with the wording: “That this House has no confidence in HM Government”. It signifies that the government has lost the support of the Commons (the legislature), without which it is impossible to operate effectively. Retaining the confidence of the Commons is a core principle of the UK constitution.

The current rules are outlined in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. If a motion stating “That this House has no confidence in HM Government” is lost by the government and a new government with the support of a majority of MPs cannot be formed within 14 days, parliament is dissolved and an early general election is triggered.

Prof Richard Toye explains: “The basic principle is this: the government of a country has to have the confidence of the House of Commons. If the government has lost its majority or does not have a reliable majority, that is the cue for either the government to fall and be replaced, or for a general election to be called.

“The government then has a fixed period of time – 14 days – to win a vote of confidence or to call a general election. This is a period of political manoeuvring in which the governing party tries to prove that it can carry on and the Opposition tries to supplant it.”

British prime minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street to attend PMQs, after she suffered a major defeat in parliament over her Brexit deal, 16 January 2019. (Photo by Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

What is the history behind the vote of no confidence – when was it first used in Britain and how common were they in previous centuries?

Votes of no confidence – or their historical equivalent – were a fairly regular occurrence in the 19th century, but from 1900 to the present day they have not come about very often, says Toye.

Sir Robert Walpole agreed to resign in 1742 after losing a vote in the Commons that was effectively considered a motion of no confidence. Toye explains: “There is a distinction to be made between a formal vote of no confidence, and a situation in which the government is looking to pass a key proposal or piece of legislation, or faces censure from the Opposition, and to lose would suggest they have lost the confidence of the House of Commons.”

A portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, who agreed to resign in 1742 after losing a vote in the Commons that was effectively considered a motion of no confidence. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
A portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, who agreed to resign in 1742 after losing a vote in the Commons that was effectively considered a motion of no confidence. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

In 1782, a motion censuring the government of Lord North for its conduct during the war with America was the first time a government was brought down by a vote of no confidence, says the Institute for Government. “Since then, there have been 20 government defeats on a vote of confidence all leading to either dissolution or resignation (and if the latter, a second government being formed in their stead).”

Other notable incidents in modern history include the (effective) vote of no confidence in the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin in 1924 following the loss of his majority in the general election of December 1923. The election left the Conservative government outnumbered in the Commons by Labour and the Liberals, and when parliament met it was defeated on the King’s Speech (that is, the government’s programme of policies). Baldwin resigned and Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority government, becoming the first Labour prime minister. He in turn lost a confidence vote that autumn and a further election followed.

A cartoon from 'Punch' magazine (1903) titled 'Fidgety Joe', by Edward Linley Sambourne, depicting two parents representing the Duke of Devonshire and Arthur Balfour (centre), respective leaders of the Liberal Unionist and Conservative parties, trying to control their son, Joseph Chamberlain. In 1903, Joseph Chamberlain began his famous crusade for Imperial Preference – an issue which caused deep divisions in the government and ultimately paved the way for the Liberal Party's return to power in the 1906 general election. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Similarly, the Norway Debate of 1940 – a debate held on 7 and 8 May between MPs on Britain’s failed campaign against German invasion forces in Norway – turned into a vote of confidence on prime minister Neville Chamberlain. On that occasion the motion on the Order Paper was simply the proposal ‘that this House do now adjourn’, on which Labour called a division (or vote).”

Chamberlain won, but with a substantially reduced majority and, with his credibility badly damaged, resigned two days later. He was replaced as prime minister by Winston Churchill. Churchill promptly invited the leaders of the Labour and Liberal parties – Clement Attlee and Archie Sinclair – to form a coalition government, with Chamberlain serving in Churchill’s cabinet as lord president of the council.

Winston Churchill making the famed ‘V’ for Victory sign. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

The last time a vote of no confidence led to a general election was in 1979. The Labour government led by James Callaghan faced a vote of no confidence on 28 March 1979 following a defeat over a referendum for devolution to Scotland and lost by just one vote. Following the vote, which was brought by opposition leader Margaret Thatcher, Callaghan was forced to call a general election which was won by Thatcher’s party.

“Opposition parties have, through history, often put down votes of no confidence, but generally they tend not to succeed because members of the governing party see that the government’s life is in danger, as it were, and so they ‘rally round’,” Toye explains.

(Getty Images)

Votes of no confidence were put down on two occasions in 1942 (“when the war was going badly for Britain”, says Toye). “These were dangerous moments for Churchill, but he consistently managed to survive the votes. There was also a case that was unrelated to the conduct of the war. In 1944 the government opposed an amendment to its Education Bill, an alteration which would have introduced equal pay for female teachers. The government lost narrowly; Churchill was furious. He went back to the House of Commons and basically said he wanted the matter to be treated as a vote of confidence, and succeeded in getting the amendment reversed. He effectively ‘brow-beat’ the House of Commons into giving him his way.”

Another curious incident in history involves Margaret Thatcher, who notably faced down Labour’s vote of no confidence in her government in 1990 – even though she had resigned as prime minister earlier that day. On 22 November, Thatcher announced her decision to stand down as prime minister after her cabinet refused to back her in a second round of leadership elections. But later that day Labour’s motion of no confidence was defeated. Nevertheless, John Major succeeded as Tory leader five days after Thatcher’s resignation.

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Even after her death in 2013, her record continued to be fiercely contested. (Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)

Were votes of no confidence used before the 19th century?

Yes, a number of politicians were subject to votes of no confidence prior to the 19th century – these include the aforementioned Robert Walpole in 1742 (he resigned afterwards); William Pitt the Younger in 1784 (he avoided resignation by asking for a dissolution of parliament and the ensuing election bolstered his government with a safe majority in the Commons); and the Duke of Wellington in 1830 (he resigned the day after the vote).

Toye says: “It’s important to remember that in previous centuries MPs were less blindly loyal to their party – in the 19th century, for example, there weren’t really ‘career politicians’ in the sense that we have them today. MPs, who weren’t paid, weren’t under the same pressure to remain loyal in order to keep their jobs, and party discipline was therefore less rigid. In this sense, 19th-century governments were less stable than modern governments.”

The Duke of Wellington.

How do votes of no confidence work today?

“Post-1900, governments have generally been unlikely to lose a vote of no confidence unless they are in a minority government,” says Toye. “The three successful votes of no confidence in recent history – two in 1924, and 1979 – were against minority governments. Similarly, the reason Theresa May was in danger in December 2018 is because of her reliance on Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party). Had May not called a general election in 2017, from which she emerged with a minority government, she would not have been so vulnerable.”

(Illustration by Davide Bonazzi for BBC History Magazine)

Under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 – which creates a five-year period between general elections and stipulates that early elections may only be held in specified circumstances – a general election could be triggered if a vote of no confidence in the government is tabled.

“Nobody quite knows how the application of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act would work out in practice because it has never been used in this particular situation before,” says Toye.

Professor Richard Toye is head of history at the University of Exeter and the author of three books on Winston Churchill. His most recent book (co-authored with Professor Martin Thomas) is Arguing About Empire: Imperial Rhetoric in Britain and France, 1882–1956 (OUP 2017).

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This article was first published in December 2018 after a vote of no confidence was triggered in prime minister Theresa May (rather than in the government itself).