The period since Brexit has been particularly turbulent for governments. Two of the Prime Ministers since then have faced a party vote of confidence, whilst a third, Liz Truss, surely would have done had she not resigned. 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 one actually more likely to remove a Prime Minister than the other?
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.
How is a party confidence motion triggered?
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?
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.
What recent examples of party confidence motions have there been?
Some recent examples of party confidence motions include:
2022 – Boris Johnson
Following the Sue Gray Report into Partygate the number of Conservative MPs who had publicly called for him to resign or publicly announced that they have submitted a letter of no confidence was over 40. On June 6th, the 1922 Chairman, Sir Graham Brady, announced that the number had reached the threshold of 54 letters and that a party vote of confidence would be held that same day. A total of 58.8% of Conservative MPs declared they had confidence in Johnson, and he was therefore able to avoid resignation. However, the number who voted against him inflicted damage from which he was never likely to recover.
2018 – Theresa May
In 2018 Theresa May was struggling to unite her party over the right approach to Brexit. Sir Graham Brady announced that enough Conservative MPs had written to him to trigger a confidence vote. When it was held, May survived by 200 to 117 votes. However, this critically weakened her as she then headed into the Commons vote on her Brexit deal which was lost by a record majority of 230 votes.
2016 – Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn was propelled into the leadership of the Labour Party by grassroots members of the party, however, he never had anything near the full support of the parliamentary party that was critically divided. In 2016 he faced a party vote of confidence in which his MPs voted by 172 to 40 that they did not have confidence in his leadership. However, under Labour rules this means a new leadership election by the whole membership needs to be held and Corbyn comfortably won this election with 61.8% of the vote.
How can a vote of confidence be a blessing in disguise?
Under Conservative Party rules if a leader faces a party vote of confidence and wins, they are then protected from facing a similar vote for a period of 12 months. This can be helpful to a Prime Minister. For example, Theresa May won her confidence vote in December 2018. However, less than a month later, she lost her Brexit vote by the largest modern majority. If she had faced a party confidence vote at this time, she may well have lost. However, she remained as Prime Minister until July 2019 when she stepped down.
In the case of Jeremy Corbyn the loss of his confidence vote to his MPs and the forced election campaign was helpful for him. It showed his dissident MPs that they were stuck with him as the party membership would return him to the leadership. Therefore, they began to get behind him a little more than before. Whilst he was never able to unite the party, things were better for him after this vote.
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.
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.
Parliamentary Motion of No Confidence – This is a constitutional mechanism whereby the House of Commons can check that the Government still have the ongoing support of the house.
Party Confidence Vote – This is a party mechanism in which MPs from a political party can check whether they wish the current incumbent to remain leader of the party.