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Confidence motions

Published Wednesday, January 16, 2019

On 15 January 2019, the Leader of the Opposition tabled a vote of no confidence in Her Majesty's government, in accordance with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The Leader of the House confirmed that provision would be made for a full day's debate on the motion of no confidence on 16 January.

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It is a core convention of the UK constitution that the Government must be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons.

The traditional position was that a Government that lost a confidence vote would resign in favour of an alternative administration, or the Prime Minister would request a dissolution from the Queen, triggering a general election. However, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 removed the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament, giving a limited power to do so instead to the House of Commons. Under the Act there are two ‘triggers’ by which the Commons can bring about an early election: one is a simple vote carried by 2/3rds of its total membership; the other is via a motion of no confidence.

Under section 2 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, if the House of Commons agrees a motion “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”, a 14 calendar-day period follows. In that 14-day period a government may be confirmed in office, by a further resolution of the House, in the form “That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”. If no such resolution is agreed, a general election is triggered.

The Act does not address the traditional means of expressing no confidence in the Government. The recent Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report, The Role of Parliament in the UK Constitution – Interim Report the Status and Effect of Confidence Motions and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, expressed the very firm view that the Act “has in no way affected the ability of the House to express no confidence in the Government through other means”. However, as that report also said “only a no confidence motion as set out in the Act can bring about a general election”.

Prior to the 2011 Act, a confidence defeat for a Government could lead to a request for a dissolution of Parliament, as an alternative to the resignation of the Government. The dissolution prerogative has been removed by that Act and hence requests for dissolution can no longer be made. Practice has been that a Government is only obliged to resign (or, prior to the 2011 Act, seek a dissolution) after being defeated on a confidence motion, although a significant defeat on any other motion may lead to a confidence motion.

Broadly speaking there are three main types of motion which act as tests of the House of Commons’ confidence in the Government: ‘confidence motions’ initiated by the Government; ‘no confidence motions’ initiated by the Opposition; and other motions which, because of the particular circumstances, can be regarded as motions of censure or confidence.

Since 1895, governments have been defeated on questions of confidence on four occasions. The defeats on questions of confidence in 1895 and January 1924 led to the resignation of the Government and the defeats in October 1924 and 1979 were followed by requests for a dissolution. A list of confidence motions debated in the House of Commons, since 1945, is provided in the briefing paper.

On 15 January 2019, Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government. This was the first such motion under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

Commons Briefing papers SN02873

Authors: Richard Kelly; Tom Powell

Topics: Central government, Parliament, Parliamentary procedure

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