James Callaghan and the last successful ‘Motion of No Confidence’ in a UK Government

Thatcher won the 1979 General Election following the motion of no confidence in James Callaghan’s government.

Few days in Parliament have had the drama of the 28th March 1979. On this day, the government of Labour leader James Callaghan fell after it lost a motion of no confidence in the House of Commons. Consequently, the 1979 General Election was held which ushered in 18 years of Conservative Government.

What is a motion of no confidence?

A motion of no confidence is an extremely important constitutional mechanism in a parliamentary democracy. In a parliamentary democracy the government only holds its power by virtue of the support of Parliament. Therefore, in the UK, the government can only hold power if it is able to prove that it has the confidence of the House of Commons. In the UK, it has always been a convention that if a government cannot prove it has the confidence of the House of Commons, it must resign. However, under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (2011), this convention was codified into statute law.

In the UK, if a government lose a vote of no confidence they are compelled to call an early general election unless they can win a motion of no confidence within fourteen days of the initial confidence vote.

Credit to Institution of Government

How common are motions of no confidence?

Explicit confidence motions are actually quite rare. Opposition parties will normally only call for a confidence vote if they are sure they are going to win it. This is because holding an unsuccessful confidence vote may serve to strengthen the position of the government. In fact, prior to James Callaghan’s loss in 1979, the last successful motion of no confidence in a government was held in 1924.

Successful motions of no confidence since 1900:

1979 – James Callaghan (Labour)

The government lost a motion of no confidence by 311-310. The motion was called following the government’s decision not to support Scottish devolution after less than 40% voters turned out in a referendum on the issue. Following this, the Scottish Nationalist Party confirmed that they would support a no confidence motion and this meant that there was a realistic chance that the Conservatives could topple the government.

January 1924 – Stanley Baldwin (Conservative)

The government lost a confidence motion following the Queen’s Speech by 328-251. The Conservatives did not have a majority, meaning they were easily defeated by Labour and Liberal votes.

October 1924 – Ramsay Macdonald (Labour)

The government lost a motion of no confidence following the government’s decision to withdraw criminal proceedings against the editor of ‘Workers Weekly’, which had been accused of inciting mutiny within the military. The government were defeated by 364-198, a majority of 166. This was the biggest government defeat until the first defeat of Theresa May’s Brexit Deal on the 15th January 2019 (a majority of 230).

Recent unsuccessful motions of no confidence:

2019 – Theresa May (Conservative)

The day after the record-breaking defeat of her Brexit Deal, Theresa May faced a motion of no confidence in the House of Commons. She survived the vote relatively comfortably as all Conservative and DUP MPs supported her. However, it was clear that her remaining time as Prime Minister would be short-lived.

1993 – John Major (Conservative)

John Major won the 1992 General Election unexpectedly. Even the Exit Polls at 22.00 on election night suggested that the Conservatives would be short of a majority by 25 seats. In fact, Major won a small majority of 22 seats.

However, in September 1992 Major’s government oversaw the debacle of Britain crashing out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. In addition, the Conservative was embroiled in a Civil War over whether to ratify the controversial Maastricht Treaty.

John Major used the ‘nuclear option’ of calling a confidence vote on his own government to solidfy support.

On Friday 23rd July 1993, Major announced that a debate on the Social Chapter (a controversial part of the Maastricht Treaty) would now be seen as a confidence vote in this government. By doing this, he was trying to proactively unite his party behind him. In the vote that followed the government won by 339 to 299.

Why was a motion of no confidence held in James Callaghan?

Callaghan remains the only person to have held all of the Great Offices of State.

James Callaghan was extremely well qualified to become Prime Minister. Prior to taking office he had held the positions of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary. When he became Prime Minister in April 1976 he therefore became the only individual to have held all four of the ‘great offices of state’.

The October 1974 election saw Labour, led by Harold Wilson, secure a majority of just three seats. Wilson’s term as Prime Minister was incredibly difficult and included rampant inflation which ran as high as 20%. Unemployment was higher than 1 million and had grown significantly since 1970. In 1976, having just turned 60, Harold Wilson resigned as Labour Leader and James Callaghan won the Labour leadership contest and therefore became Prime Minister.

The difficulties of Wilson’s premiership were continued for Callaghan. In 1976, he was forced to seek a loan of $4 Billon Dollars from the IMF, something usually reserved for LEDCs.

By 1978, some progress economically had been reached and opinion polls suggested that if Labour called a General Election they would win it. However, Callaghan refused to call a snap election.

Why did Callaghan lose his motion of no confidence?

Rubbish piled up during the ‘Winter of Discontent’.

The year of 1979 was exceptionally difficult for Britain. There was widespread industrial unrest. The winter of 1978-79 was called the ‘winter of discontent’ as trade union strikes ground British public services to a halt. It was against this economic backdrop that the vote of no confidence was held.

Importantly for Callaghan, since October 1974 General Election Labour had lost its majority in Parliament. Between 1974 and 1979 there had been 20 by-elections in Labour held seats. Of these 20 by-elections, Labour candidates won only 13. This meant there majority of 3 seats led to them being short of a majority.

On the night of the motion of no confidence, the result was agonisingly close. The Ayes were 311 and the Noes were 310.

The result was mainly along party lines. The Conservatives, Liberals and Scottish Nationalists DUP voted Aye. Labour and Plaid Cymru voted No.

The only party who split their support were the Ulster Unionist Party of whom 5 voted Aye and 2 Voted No.

Crucially, there were also three abstentions: Gerry Fitt (SDLP), Frank Maguire (Independent Republican) and Alfred Broughton (Labour).

Alfred Broughton sadly died just five days after the Confidence Vote.

Unfortunately for Labour, Broughton was on his death bed when the vote came. Broughton was willing to travel down to Westminster against his Doctor’s advice, but Callaghan refused the offer. Importantly, had the result been a tie, the Speaker would have voted against the motion of no confidence in line with the Denison Convention.

In response to the vote, James Callaghan told the House:

” Mr. Speaker, now that the House of Commons has declared itself, we shall take our case to the country. Tomorrow I shall propose to Her Majesty that Parliament be dissolved as soon as essential business can be cleared up, and I shall then announce as soon as may be—and that will be as soon as possible—the date of Dissolution, the date of the election and the date of meeting of the new Parliament.”

When the General Election was held on the 3rd May 1979 and saw a Conservative Majority of 44 seats.

In what other ways can no confidence be found in the Government?

There are certain other votes that are considered to be so important that they are a de facto confidence vote in the Government. These include:

A government loss on the Queen’s Speech debate is seen as a de facto no confidence vote.

The vote on the Queen’s Speech – During the Queen’s Speech the monarch outlines the government’s legislative agenda. This happens at the opening of a new Parliament. Following the speech there is usually five days of debate which is followed by a vote. Because this vote is on the government’s key legislative proposals and essentially its agenda for government, any loss of the Queen’s Speech will be seen as a vote of no confidence in the government. The last time a PM lost a Queen’s Speech vote was Stanley Baldwin in 1924.

The vote on the Budget – After the Chancellor of the Exchequer gives his yearly speech to Parliament, it is then turned into legislation through a Finance Bill. By convention, the House of Lords does not vote against Finance Bills, however, the House of Commons can. A government can only function if there is a supply of money to fund government departments and projects. Therefore, a loss of a budget vote is considered to be a de facto no confidence vote. However, it is unusual for the Government to lose a vote on the Budget itself. Instead, they are more likely to lose votes on amendments made to the Budget, thus avoiding a confidence issue.

How important are motions of no confidence?

Although they are rare, motions of no confidence are central to the UK constitution. It is essential that in a representative democracy the government can only hold power virtue of its support in Parliament and, by extension, the electorate. If it cannot prove this, it has to go back to the people through a General Election in order to show it has a mandate for government.

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