What is the difference between a party and parliamentary motion of no confidence?

Boris Johnson looks likely to face a confidence vote next week.

It looks increasingly likely that Boris Johnson will face a Conservative Party confidence motion next week. One of the biggest mistakes that students make in their A-Level exams is to mistake a party confidence motion with a parliamentary motion of no confidence. They are two different things and have different potential outcomes. So what is the difference and why is it looking increasingly likely that Boris Johnson will face one?

What is a party no confidence vote?

A party confidence vote is when a political party tests the confidence that they have in their leader. If the party leader loses that vote they will be removed from their position. Of course, in the case that the leader is also the Prime Minister, this would also result in a new Prime Minister being required. This is the position that Boris Johnson potentially finds himself in this week.

How is a party confidence motion triggered?

Sir Graham Brady is the Chair of the 1922 Committee who Conservative MPs write their ‘no confidence’ letters to’.

The methods via which a party leadership confidence motion are triggered vary by party.

Conservatives – In the Conservative Party a vote of no confidence will be held in the leader if 15% of Conservative MPs submit a letter of no confidence to the Chair of the 1922 Committee. This is currently Sir Graham Brady. These letters are secret and Sir Graham Brady does not discuss the number until the threshold is reached.

Labour – In the Labour Party if anyone wants to challenge the sitting leader than they need the backing of 20% of all Labour MPs and MEPs. If the leadership is vacant, this drops to 15%.

Liberal Democrats – Liberal Democrats can trigger a leadership election if a simple majority of Liberal Democrat MPs pass a vote of no confidence or if 75 local parties request a leadership election.

How is a party confidence motion held and what happens next?

Theresa May faced a party confidence vote in December 2018.

If the threshold is reached for triggering the vote then a full vote of the parliamentary party will be held. If the leader loses that vote, there will then be a leadership election. In the case of all three parties a simple majority is all that is required to remove the sitting leader. If the sitting leader is removed, a leadership contest will take place. In the case of the Labour and Liberal Democrats the now former leader can take part in the subsequent the leadership contest. However, in the case of the Conservatives they cannot.

Why is Boris Johnson in danger?

Following the Sue Gray Report the number of Conservative MPs who have publicly called for him to resign or publicly announced that they have submitted a letter is now over 40 (as of 31.05.2022). In the last few days these have included some significant figures in the party:

Andrea Leadsom – Leadsom was a key Brexiteer and formerly a firm supporter of the Prime Minister. However, she has criticised him for his “unacceptable failings in leadership” over partygate.

Jeremy Wright – Wright is a former Attorney-General, the chief legal officer of the Government. He has written a 2,000 word letter explaining why he cannot continue to support the Prime Minister following partygate.

Sir Bob Neill – Neill is a respected MP, having served since 2006. He has called on Johnson to resign following partygate and has confirmed he has submitted a no confidence letter.

However, there may be even more that have written to Sir Graham Brady but not announced it publicly. So far 29 Conservative MPs have publicly states they want Johnson removed. When Theresa May met the threshold of 48 letters in 2018, only 27 of these were announced publicly. It is therefore seeming very likely that Johnson may face a vote of no confidence next week (it will not be this week so as not to distract from the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee). Indeed, there may be MPs who want to announce a letter publicly but are not doing so due to the focus on the Queen this week.

Why might a motion of no confidence turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Boris Johnson?

If a vote of no confidence is held in the Conservative Party and the sitting leader wins it they are then protected from facing another vote for 12 months. This provided a ‘stay of execution’ for Theresa May when she was Prime Minister. On 12th December 2018 Theresa May faced a no confidence vote by the Conservative Party. This was instigated over dissatisfaction with her plans for Brexit. She won this vote by 200-117. Following this, however, she lost three votes on her Brexit Deal, including one by 230 votes, the biggest majority in modern parliamentary history. However, as Conservative rebels had forced a confidence vote in December, she did not face one after this major loss – where she was certainly weaker than she had been before.

Chris Bryant Chairs the Commons Privileges Committee but has recused himself from the role over this issue due to his previous statements.

Following the publication of the Sue Gray Report the big challenge upcoming for Boris Johnson is his investigation by the Parliamentary Privileges Committee. They will decide whether or not he has deliberately misled Parliament over partygate. If he is found to have done so he may be punished by Parliament, but will also be have found (in the eyes of the Committee) to have breached the Ministerial Code. At this point, if this happened, the pressure on him would be unbearable. As such, if Boris Johnson faced a confidence vote now, it may be in his interest as he could not face one after the privileges committee has reported.

What is a parliamentary motion of no confidence?

A parliamentary motion of no confidence is a vote by parliament as to whether or not the Government (not an individual) has confidence of the House of Commons. It is a constitutional and not a party mechanism. In a parliamentary democracy the government can only stay in place if it has the support of the House of Commons. More detail can be found about a Parliamentary Motion of No Confidence here.

However, these votes are generally less concerning for a sitting Prime Minister. They almost always are voted down party lines, meaning a Prime Minister with a majority is almost certainly going to win it. For example May (2019), Major (1993) and Callaghan (1979) did not have a single member of their own party voting against them.

If a government does lose a parliamentary motion of no confidence the ramifications are even more serious as a new General Election must be held. However, this will not happen to Boris Johnson due to his healthy Commons majority.

Article Summary

There is often confusion between a party and parliamentary motion of no confidence. However, they are different. Although a parliamentary motion of no confidence is more constitutionally significant, they are almost never successfully passed. Being removed by ones own party is much more of a real threat to a sitting Prime Minister.

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