Arlene Foster and Theresa May entered a Confidence and Supply Agreement in 2017.

A Government is formed in the UK when the King invites a member of the House of Commons to form one. It is by convention that a Prime Minister comes from the House of Commons and is the leader of the largest party in the House. This is because, as Prime Minister, they need to be directly accountable to the people’s elected representatives. As such, the last Prime Minister to govern from the House of Lords was the Marquess of Salisbury in 1902. It is normally pretty clear cut who is to become Prime Minister. However, what happens if that is not the case and why might a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement become necessary?

What are the different types of Government?

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, was the last Prime Minister to govern from the House of Lords.

For a government to continue in office, it must ‘have the confidence of the House’. This is an important fact in a parliamentary democracy. This can be tested by a motion of no confidence in the House of Commons. If a government fails a vote of no confidence, then the Prime Minister can be obliged to resign and seek a dissolution of Parliament and, thereby, a new General Election. The last time this happened was in a March 1979 when James Callaghan lost a motion of no confidence by 311-310, forcing a General Election which Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won.

Since 1945, there have been 29 Governments formed. They have been made up of four different types:

They are made up of one of four types:

Blair 1997
Tony Blair’s 1997 majority of 179 is the largest there has been since 1945.

Majority Government – This is by far the most common type of government in the UK. Of the 29 Governments since 1945, 25 have been majority governments. A majority government occurs when one party has a majority in the House of Commons. This enables them to pass most legislation and to avoid a no confidence vote.

Minority Government – This is far less common type of government and might occur when no one party has a majority and there is therefore a ‘hung parliament’. Since 1945 there have been times when there has been a minority government:

1974 – Harold Wilson failed to secure a majority in the General Election and led a minority government until another election in October.

1977 – A series of by-election results saw the government of James Callaghan lose its majority and become a minority government. To avoid a confidence vote, they agreed the Lib-Lab Pact in 1977 (discussed below). Eventually, the loss of by-elections would be enough to see Callaghan lose the vote of no confidence that was held in March 1979.

1997 – John Major won the 1992 General Election with a majority of 21 seats. However, a series of by-election loss saw him lose his majority. By the time of the 1997 General Election, he was leading a minority government.

Coalition Government – A coalition government is one in which one of more parties join as the party of government. A coalition may be either full or partial. There has only been one formal coalition government since 1945. This was between 2010-2015 when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats created a coalition government.

Nick Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister as part of the 2010-2015 Coalition Agreement.

Confidence and Supply Agreement – An agreement of confidence and supply is where one party agrees to support a government by voting with it in a vote of no confidence (confidence) and supporting the budget (supply of money). This is short of a formal coalition, but the smaller party offering the confidence and supply motion will undoubtedly make many demands in order to make the offer. A confidence and supply motion is a way for a party to govern as a minority, but without having to form a formal coalition.

When Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016, she inherited David Cameron’s small majority. However, after looking at the polls in 2017 she believed that she had the chance to increase that majority. Unfortunately for her, in the General Election the Conservatives lost 13 seats from their 2015 total. At the time, Theresa May could not risk governing as a minority. With Brexit the main political issue, she would have been utterly hamstrung. Therefore, she entered discussions with the Democratic Ulster Party (DUP) and reached an agreement on confidence and supply. The DUP have 10 MPs and therefore can protect Theresa May’s Government from a no-confidence vote. As part of the agreement, the DUP agreed:

  • To support the government in confidence votes.
  • To support the government’s budget.
  • To support all finance and money bills.
  • To support the government in all votes regarding Brexit.
  • To support the government in all votes regarding national security.

However, in addition, there were a number of political agreements that were reached. These included:

  • An extra £1.5 Billion to be spent on Northern Ireland.
  • A guarantee that Britain would spend at least 2% of GNP of national defence.
With her party having just 10 Seats in the House of Commons, the DUP Leader, Arlene Foster, had disproportionate influence over the UK Government.

The power of the DUP during the Brexit process was significant, with 10 DUP MPs having an effective veto over Brexit policy. However, without this agreement, Theresa May would not have been able to govern at all. Indeed, in the January 2019 Vote of No Confidence in Theresa May she survived by 325-306, something that would not have happened had the DUP voted the other way.

What was the Lib-Lab Pact?

In March 1977 the Labour Government lost its small majority following a by-election. Britain was going through a very difficult economic situation and the danger of a motion of no confidence was therefore very high. Labour therefore approached the Liberal Party, then led by David Steel, for support. The agreement that was announced was not a coalition (the Liberals did not take government posts) however it was more than a confidence and supply agreement. This was because as party of the agreement Labour accepted a number of Liberal policy proposals. The Lib-Lab Pact is not a coalition but is a bespoke political agreement.

Article Summary

Under the First Past the Post electoral system majority government is the norm. However, there are times when different governments exist in the UK. One of these is a confidence and supply agreement in which a party agrees to support the government in both issues of the budget and in motions of confidence.

Key Terms

Majority Government – A government formed by a party with the majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Minority Government – A government formed by a party without a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Hung Parliament – A situation where no one party has a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Coalition Government – A formal agreement whereby two or more parties agree to govern together.

Confidence and Supply Agreement – An agreement whereby a party agrees to support the government on budgetary and confidence votes.

Lib-Lab Pact – A short-lived political agreement between Labour and the Liberals from 1977 to 1978.

Motion of No Confidence – A vote in the House of Commons to test whether the government has the support of the House.

Parliamentary Democracy – A form of government in which the executive branch derives its legitimacy from the legislative branch and the Prime Minister is elected indirectly by Members of Parliament.

Specification Links:
Edexcel: Paper 2 – 3.1 (Prime Minister and Executive)
AQA: Paper 1 – (The Prime Minister and Cabinet)
WJEC: Paper 1 – 1.2 (The Government of the UK)

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