Votes of no confidence, Put Simply

By Blog Writer Sam Jacobsen

Two big resignations have seriously altered the complexion of Theresa May’s cabinet, and possibly even jeopardised its survival. Having replaced David Davis and Boris Johnson with new ministers, the Conservative government will insist that it is more united than ever. However, there have been rumblings of a potential ‘vote of no confidence’ that could depose May as prime minister, and perhaps even trigger a general election.

A vote of no confidence is effectively a coup against a political leadership. It’s not just governments that can face them. Jeremy Corbyn lost one in 2017, and had to go through a second Labour leadership contest as a result. In the context of the current government, it starts getting complicated, in that there are essentially two different sorts of challenge it could face. 

The first would be a vote of no confidence in Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party. In our parliamentary political system, whoever leads the largest party in Parliament is the prime minister. Therefore, if May is ousted as Tory leader, she will no longer be able to lead the country. In order to attempt such a mutiny, a quarter of Conservative MPs would have to write official requests to a Tory parliamentary group called the 1922 Committee. That would result in a leadership contest. Theresa May would have to convince a majority of Conservative Party members that she was still the right person to lead the party, not to mention the nation. 

Significantly, Conservative MP Phillip Davies submitted a vote of no confidence letter to chair of the 1922 committee, Graham Brady, on Thursday. He cited concerns over the Chequer’s plan for Brexit, with the fear that failure to deliver would lead to the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Due to the secretive nature of the process, it is unknown how many other letters have been submitted. In the case of a vote, the PM would need the support of more than half of the Conservatives' 316 votes to survive. Although there would be no obligation for a subsequent general election, appointing an unelected prime minister to preside over a minority government would certainly raise questions of legitimacy. No-one wants to fight a successful leadership contest, only to become a sitting duck for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. 

Speaking of Labour, there is in fact a different sort of vote of no confidence, which can be triggered by the opposition. In this scenario, a government is toppled if it fails to secure the confidence of 50% of MPs. This is what happened to Labour prime minister James Callaghan in 1979, after his minority government lost the support of Scottish nationalists and Ulster unionists. Theresa May is also relying on the support of Ulster unionists, in this case the DUP, who have so far shown little sign of abandoning her. Therefore, this type of no confidence motion seems less likely, at least for the time being. 

Votes of no confidence are rare. When they fail, it weakens the rebels’ position, and even when they are successful, the consequences are not always clear. Evidently, the departures of Davis and Johnson have made a stir, but it’s possible that Theresa May will cling on for a while yet. Perhaps even until the next scheduled general election, in 2022…

Sources and Further Reading 

Image: House of Commons @flickr 

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