The principle that an administration can only function if it has the backing of a majority in the House of Commons is acknowledged to be a fundamental part – perhaps the fundamental part – of not only the British, but of any parliamentary constitution. It expresses the idea that Parliament itself cannot exercise executive power, but gives its authority to a smaller group who can, trusting them to use it wisely. The meaning of a vote of no confidence – indicating the withdrawal of that trust – is obvious enough in principle. But as arguments mount about what might happen in September, what it means in practice has come to seem considerably more complicated and uncertain; and the idea of a vote of no confidence has come under a degree of scrutiny that it is scarcely able to bear. For although it has now acquired a specific meaning as incorporated into the statutory constitutional framework through the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 , the doctrine of how it is used and what it means is still overshadowed and complicated by the vaguer and more flexible ways in which it has been understood over the past two or three centuries.
This blog is not intended to do anything so useful as to try to resolve any of the doubts that exist on one side or the other – and in a constitution that is essentially politically negotiated, most of them may be unresolvable except by further practice (there are helpful discussions in a note by the House of Commons Library and the report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee). It is, though, intended to begin to explore the origins and early development of the idea of a motion of no confidence. I only propose to look here at the way in which the idea of no confidence is incorporated into a specific motion, because there are two enormous complications in dealing with the subject more broadly. One is that the history of the idea is so deeply bound up with the history of the relationship between party and parliament that they are difficult to disentangle. The other is that while we tend to assume that a vote of no confidence means a motion that ‘this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’, the term is generally applied to a wide variety of motions that caused, or were expected to cause, the resignation of the government of the day, including votes on specific pieces of legislation, supply estimates, resolutions or addresses; to motions also referred to as motions of censure, condemning specific government actions; and occasions where an amendment to another motion has turned it into a motion of confidence. A helpful House of Commons Library briefing paper provides lists of successful ‘votes of no confidence’ since 1895 and lists of all ‘motions of no confidence’ since 1945; and the Wikipedia page on motions of confidence, though less reliable, gives a good sense of the variety of motions concerned.
Before the Revolution
Discontent among the king’s most powerful subjects about his chosen advisers – particularly where they were chosen from outside their own ranks, provided with unusual access to his person and empowered to exclude others from gaining access – was one of the basic themes of English history from the thirteenth century onwards; the idea that ‘evil counsellors’ were to blame for royal misgovernment one of the most common tropes of political argument. A demand that key royal officers should be appointed by Parliament formed part of the Ordinances of 1311 and was revived from time to time throughout the Middle Ages. The idea of impeachment, also developed in the fourteenth century – though it had rather different roots – could also be used to attempt to remove a royal minister, though seldom with any success. The Long Parliament in the 1640s would revive and build on these ideas when it demanded that the king should appoint to senior positions only ‘such persons as Your Parliament might confide in’, a demand that was a central feature of the petition accompanying the Grand Remonstrance of late 1641 , the Nineteen Propositions of 1642 , and all the subsequent negotiations between King and Parliament, the failure of which ended in his trial and execution in early 1649. As those negotiations showed, an uncontrolled right to appoint ministers was a central aspect of the royal prerogative and was never going to be willingly conceded. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 there was no question of a formal limitation on the royal power to appoint ministers: instead, it was constrained by an accumulation of practical difficulties. The parliamentary opponents of powerful individual ministers after 1660 continued to try impeachments, as they did against the earl of Clarendon in 1667 and the earl of Danby in 1679; but these were cumbersome processes, which involved the agreement of the House of Lords and were easily entangled in legal manoeuvres. An alternative, the address to the Crown to remove a certain minister from the king’s ‘presence and councils for ever’, became a quicker and more immediate way of demanding the dismissal of an unpopular royal servant (avoiding the necessity of a cumbersome process of trying to find evidence). It was sometimes intended as a prelude to an impeachment, because it was argued that it was virtually impossible to gather evidence against a minister in post as few would be willing to come forward as witnesses; but no such motion resulted in a successful impeachment. Motions of this kind had been occasionally used in the 1620s (such as this one, deployed against the Duke of Buckingham in June 1626); but addresses demanding the dismissal of ministers became almost routine in the 1670s (such as against the second Duke of Buckingham in January 1674 and many others).
From the Revolution to Walpole
The partisan hostilities generated by the events of the 1680s, culminating in the 1689 Revolution, ensured that the House of Commons would become an arena for frequent, almost routine, efforts to pressurize the king and queen into dismissing individual ministers, or groups of ministers, through various devices – normally motions expressing criticism of individual policies or actions, addresses for their removal, and impeachments. The idea that if the House expressed its dissatisfaction with one of them the monarch should remove the offender – without going through the whole rigmarole of impeachment – came more readily to radical Whigs; but the efforts of a dominant faction of radicalized and aggressive ultra-Tories to winkle out hated Whigs from the ministries of William III and Anne suggested that they were happy to accept (when convenient) the idea that (as it was summarized by a non-Tory witness) ‘in our political constitution, if the ministerial part of the government and the Parliament be not of a-piece, nothing can be expected from them but continual jars and misunderstandings, each contending to put the other in the wrong, and obstructing what the other moves for the public good’. William III, especially, was deeply resistant to the idea that the Commons could force from office his chosen ministers and to the idea that he should try to construct a ministry on the basis of a party. But though politicians clubbing together as a party to achieve their objects was widely seen as factious, conspiratorial and un-English, and while many executive-minded politicians regarded with some distaste the antics of the more full-blooded of their persuasion, the incontrovertible truth from the Revolution to the Hanoverian succession in 1714 was that politics was becoming a matter of two party blocs trying to engross political power and patronage through their dominance of the Commons, and that this left the monarch’s claim to be able to choose his or her own ministers increasingly out of touch with reality.
The Hanoverian succession and the following couple of decades complicated that understanding, though it did not contradict it. With one of the party blocs, the Tories, effectively removed from any hope of power, and with one minister, Sir Robert Walpole, quite securely enjoying both the confidence of the monarch and the support of the great majority of the Commons, ‘the ministerial part of the government’ and ‘the Parliament’ were more ‘a-piece’ than they had ever been before. Nevertheless, a campaign to dislodge his support in the Commons, through relentless attacks on both his policy and his methods, his ‘system of corruption’, started to bear fruit in the late 1730s. The so-called ‘patriot’ opposition to Walpole geared itself up for a major effort to remove him on 13 February 1741, when Samuel Sandys, one of its leaders, moved ‘That an humble Address be presented to his Majesty, That he will be graciously pleased to remove the Right honourable Sir Robert Walpole…. From his Majesty’s Presence and Councils for ever’; an identical motion was moved in the House of Lords. Both of them were negatived. Much has been made of Sandys’s motion (particularly in some continental analyses) as in some sense the first ‘vote of no confidence’. Walpole certainly claimed that there was something new and illegitimate about it: ‘I must think, that an address to his majesty to remove one of his servants, without so much as alleging any particular crime against him, is one of the greatest encroachments that was ever made upon the prerogatives of the crown’. (Parliamentary History, XI, 1296) But while Walpole’s claim touched a nerve and partly explains its failure to be accepted, the motion was no different in form or intended effect to those moved in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, and perhaps only seemed new because it was some time since anything similar had been attempted.
George III and the Politicians
Walpole’s eventual resignation about a year later would look more in line with future ministerial departures: his defeat on a vote relating to an election dispute – a routine matter but one critical to party management – led to his recognition that his system of management had essentially collapsed. But what may have done more than anything else to develop the modern notion of ‘confidence’ was George III’s deep revulsion for the party game, his determination to establish ministries on a non-party basis, and the development by opposition Whigs in the 1760s of an account of constitutional illegitimacy as powerful as the critique of political corruption created by Walpole’s opponents in the 1730s. The idea that the king fostered in Parliament a group of ‘king’s friends’ who were independent of the Whig grandees who regarded themselves as the political leaders of the country suggested to those grandees a subversion of the constitution, converting Parliament from a check on the executive to a creature of it. Edmund Burke’s enormously influential pamphlet of 1770, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, did much to elaborate the existing understanding of the need for the ‘ministerial part’ and Parliament to be ‘a-piece’, and to provide it with the language of ‘confidence’:
It had always, until of late, been held the first duty of Parliament, to refuse to support Government, until power was in the hands of persons who were acceptable to the people, or while factions predominated in the Court in which the nation had no confidence… If the use of this power of control on the system and persons of Administration is gone, everything is lost, Parliament and all. We may assure ourselves, that if Parliament will tamely see evil men take possession of all the strong-holds of their country, and allow them time and means to fortify themselves, under a pretence of giving them a fair trial, and upon a hope of discovering, whether they will not be reformed by power, and whether their measures will not be better than their morals; such a Parliament will give countenance to their measures also, whatever that Parliament may pretend, and whatever those measures may be.
Over the political crises of the following fifteen years, associated with the rebellion in America and the disastrous war that ensued, the idea of ‘confidence’ started to embed itself into constitutional practice. The claim that there was a lack of ‘confidence’ in the present government was deployed by the opposition headed by the Marquis of Rockingham in the House of Lords at the opening of the 1775 and 1776 sessions of Parliament. In the Commons, in the debate at the opening of Parliament in November 1778 opposition speakers were using it freely. Charles James Fox contrasted the situation now with that towards the end of the reign of George II, when there had been ‘a ministry who knew the interests of their country, who were unanimous in the cabinet, uniting in themselves those circumstances which point out the proper natural aristocracy of this country and supported by the confidence of the nation’.
With the collapse of British forces towards the end of the American war, oppositions started to incorporate the idea of confidence into motions of censure. They may have been encouraged to do so by Lord North’s response on 5 March 1782 to Fox, and to the House’s vote against further prosecution of the war in America a week earlier:
That if any one branch of the legislature should so far withdraw confidence from the executive power, as to interfere on all occasions, and give particular directions how the executive power should proceed, it would be better, and more constitutional, entirely to remove the ministers, than to leave power in their hands, after confidence had been withdrawn… if he found himself so little the object of the confidence of Parliament, as that every day he should find that Parliament was under the necessity of directing him how to act, he would undoubtedly, in that case, retire from office. But as long as Parliament should not think it necessary to remove him either by a vote, or by totally withdrawing their confidence, the honourable member would excuse him, if he should resolve still to retain his situation. [Parliamentary Register, 1782 vol. VI, p. 369]
Three days later, the opposition tried, but failed, to get the House to pass a series of resolutions enumerating the failures of the war, and concluding that ‘the chief cause of all these misfortunes is owing to want of foresight and ability in his Majesty’s Ministers’. North noted that the motions ‘to be sure were rather more moderate than an address to remove Ministers, but they went to the same effect, and if carried, Ministers must go out’ (ibid., 411). A week after that, on 15 March, they tried again, with the first really recognisable motion of no confidence, albeit one with a huge parenthesis in the middle incorporating much of the text of the motion of 8 March:
That this House (taking into Consideration the great Sums voted, and Debts incurred, for the Service of the Army, Navy, and Ordnance, in this unfortunate War, to the amount of upwards of One hundred Millions; and finding that the Nation has, notwithstanding these extraordinary Exertions, lost Thirteen ancient Colonies belonging to the Crown of Great Britain, the new-acquired Province of West Florida, and the Islands of Dominica, Saint Vincent, Grenada, Tobago, and Minorca, besides several valuable Commercial Fleets, of the utmost Importance to the Wealth of this Country; and that we are still involved in War with Three powerful Nations in Europe, without One single Ally) can have no further Confidence in the Ministers who have the Direction of Public Affairs.
The motion was defeated, but by only 9 votes, 227-236; Fox announced during the division his intention to bring a similar motion back the following week. Before he did so, North resigned.
The 1784 crisis and the confidence of the people
North’s resignation and the messy end of the war would result, over the following two years or more, in a period of intense political turbulence – the deepest crisis since the Revolution – exacerbated by the enormous political egoism and personal hostilities of many of the political leaders, including (especially) the king. The climax to the crisis came with the king’s underhand engineering in December 1783 of the defeat in the Lords of the East India bill proposed by his own ministry, albeit one he intensely disliked, the Fox-North coalition; the coalition’s subsequent resignation, and the king’s installation of the wunderkind William Pitt as chancellor of the exchequer and prime minister. Given the weakness of the new ministry in the Commons, still dominated by the partisans of Fox and North, it was difficult to see how it could carry on for long, and it was widely assumed that it would seek a dissolution and new elections as soon as possible. The opposition submitted the new government to intense pressure, defeating it in a series of debates and votes designed to prevent a dissolution – including in an electric debate on 12 January 1784 the postponement of consideration of the Mutiny Bill, required in order to maintain military discipline, and a declaration that it would be a high crime and misdemeanour to issue, after a dissolution or prorogation, any money not appropriated by Parliament; and a resolution ‘that in the present situation of his Majesty’s dominions, it is peculiarly necessary that there should be an administration that has the confidence of this House and the public’. A few days later the House voted that the continuance of the ministry was ‘contrary to constitutional principles and injurious to the interests of His Majesty and his people’; and on 2 February 1784 a motion ‘That it is the Opinion of this House, that the Continuance of the present Ministers in their Offices is an Obstacle to the Formation of such an Administration as may enjoy the Confidence of this House, and tend to put an End to the unfortunate Divisions and Distractions of the Country’ moved by Thomas Coke, the ardent Foxite Member for Norfolk, was passed by 223 to 204.
By then, though, the ministry had found a response: to generate loyal addresses from the country at large in its support, rousing opinion outside Parliament to combat its problems inside it. In the debate on 2 February, speaking on behalf of the government, Henry Dundas played relentlessly on the idea that it was the House of Commons, not the ministers, that was out of touch with the people:
no man, he believed, could lay his hand to his heart and say, that the present Ministers had not the confidence of the people; that they had, it was pretty evident, from the number of addresses that had already been carried in from different parts of the kingdom, thanking His Majesty for having removed the late Ministers and appointed the present… Now though he was firmly persuaded, that constitutionally the voice of the people could only be collected through the medium of their representatives, yet it was pretty evident, that the present Ministry had the public confidence in a very eminent and honourable degree…
Fox’s response was to argue that the ministry was currying popular favour in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the House:
there is intention in ministers to establish themselves on a foundation unfriendly to the constitutional privileges of this House. They court the affection of the people, and on this foundation they wish to support themselves on a foundation unfriendly to the constitutional privileges of this House. They court the affection of the people, and on this foundation they wish to support themselves in opposition to the repeated resolutions of this House. Is not this declaring themselves independent of Parliament? Is not this separating the House of Commons from its constituents, annihilating our importance, and avowedly erecting a monarchy on the basis of an affected popularity, independent of and uncontrollable by Parliament? Such a system I can view under no other aspect but as a system of the basest tyranny, and calculated to accomplish the ruin of the liberties of the country. [XIII, 54]
Pitt’s strategy, combined with the gradual build up of support from Members either shifting to the ministry or being persuaded to attend and vote with it, proved ultimately remarkably effective, and the ability of the opposition to pass motions condemning government diminished day by day. The opposition’s final effort to dislodge it came on 8 March, when – having called for the resolutions of 27 February and 15 March 1782 to be read, it promoted an enormous and rambling motion for an address to the king, which pointed out that
we neither have disputed, nor mean in any instance to dispute, much less to deny, His Majesty’s undoubted prerogative of appointing to the executive offices of state such persons, as to His Majesty’s wisdom shall seem meet; but at the same time, that we must, with all humility, again submit to His Majesty’s royal wisdom that no administration, however legally appointed, can serve His Majesty and the public with effect, which does not enjoy the confidence of this House; that in His Majesty’s present administration we cannot confide; the circumstances under which it was constituted, and the grounds upon which it continues, have created just suspicions in the breasts of his faithful commons that principles are adopted, and views entertained, unfriendly to the privileges of this House, and to the freedom of our excellent constitution: That we have made no charge against any of them, because it is their Removal, and not their Punishment, which we have desired; and that we humbly conceive, we are warranted by the ancient Usage of this House, to desire such Removal without making any Charge whatever: That Confidence may be very prudently withheld, where no criminal Process can be properly instituted…
The motion was passed, but by only one vote. The opposition abandoned any further effort to force the government out and allowed the Mutiny bill through the Commons. Three weeks later, the king dissolved Parliament and called new elections in which Pitt’s government trounced the Foxite opposition.
Melbourne and Peel
The 1784 crisis had made the doctrine of ‘confidence’ familiar and had created the vote of no confidence as a means of insisting, or trying to insist, on the removal of a ministry, distinct from addresses for the dismissal of ministers, or the now archaic system of impeachment. It had also shown that a determined king had ways of exhausting an opposition that was not quite ruthless enough to persuade its supporters to refuse to vote through measures without which army discipline or government finance could collapse. Perhaps because they were regarded as only necessary when a ministry resisted resignation, or because a failure to pass one would seem like a triumph for the government, formal motions of confidence of this sort were rare, indeed, seemingly non-existent, between 1784 and 1840 – though motions expressing confidence in ministers were used by the government (10 October 1831), and the opposition did try a motion expressing ‘no confidence in [ministers’] capacity for conducting a negotiation to a prosperous issue’ (10 May 1796). Oppositions tried out plenty of other motions criticising ministers, for example demanding that the king ‘listen no longer to the councils which have forced us into this unhappy war’ (21 Feb. 1793); regretting changes in the ministry (15 April 1807); criticising ministers for withholding from the House ‘the necessary materials for a due and full discharge of its constitutional functions’ (3 June 1803), and so on. They still used the old motion for the dismissal ‘from His Presence and Councils His present Ministers, as the most likely Means of obtaining a speedy and permanent Peace’ (19 May 1797). (This form of motion survived into the 1950s, deployed by the cold warrior Sir Waldron Smithers in his eccentric petition praying for the removal of Manny Shinwell as Minister for Defence and John Strachey as Secretary of State for War after the Klaus Fuchs spying case (8 May, 28 June 1950)).
The idea of a specific vote of no confidence was revived during the farcical echo of the 1784 crisis in 1834-5, when William IV tried ineptly to replace a Whig administration with a Tory one after the Melbourne government became unviable following the departure of its key figure in the Commons, Lord Althorp, to the House of Lords. The king’s belief that a government led by the Duke of Wellington or Sir Robert Peel could command a majority in the lower House was bizarre; and his assumption that he could simply ignore such niceties was generally seen as an outrageous revival of the doctrines of George III. An election was inevitable, though it failed to deliver Peel’s government a majority either. Immediately defeated on the address in answer to the royal speech and on the choice of the Speaker, Peel struggled from February to April to establish some equilibrium, before a resignation which handed power back to Melbourne and the Whigs.
During that period, the ‘hundred days’ of Peel’s ministry, the opposition made frequent reference to the doctrine of confidence, pointing out that since the post 1832 House of Commons was more representative of the people than ever before, it more truly reflected the confidence of the nation than it had ever done. The opposition did not, however, try to bring Peel down directly, with a motion of no confidence, probably because its largely nominal leader, Melbourne, had very little appetite to do so. Instead, opposition politicians in the Commons carried on a sort of guerrilla war, constantly wrecking government business item by item. Peel complained bitterly about this constant obstruction on 27 March, during a debate on the supply estimates. It would have been, he argued, ‘a fair and legitimate course of hostility, for the House of Commons to declare “We have no confidence in your Government, and we will not intrust you with any vote or control of money” … but it was not fair to leave the Ministers in doubt as to what were the intentions of the House, making it impossible for them to fulfil those intentions, by opposing obstructions, through causes which it was impossible adequately to meet, and the motives of which the public could not very well understand.’
Peel’s government eventually gave up on 8 April after one final, last-straw defeat, and was replaced with a new Whig government reluctantly led by Melbourne. With strong personalities and intense political disagreements, Melbourne’s unhappy administration was itself constantly expected to fall apart, and the troops of the Tory opposition was eager to help it to do so. But like Melbourne in 1835, and similarly to the dissatisfaction of his backbenchers, Peel was wary of mounting a full-scale attack, and it was not until 28 January 1840, when the opposition proposed a motion that ‘Her Majesty’s Government as at present constituted does not possess the confidence of this House’ that the explicit claim that it had no confidence in the government was once more incorporated into a motion debated by the House. In opposing it, Whig ministers Sir George Grey and Lord Russell echoed Peel’s own complaints of five years before about the opposition’s previous unwillingness to present a straightforward motion of this kind. Grey claimed (28 January 1840) to be pleased that they
have at last mustered courage sufficient to abandon the course of policy which they have pursued during the last five years and to substitute for a perpetual warfare of detail—for a perpetual obstruction of the measures which her Majesty’s Government in discharge of its duty has submitted to Parliament, accompanied by a somewhat vain-glorious boast at the close of each Session over the nullity of the deliberations of Parliament—to substitute for a series of attacks upon individual branches of the administration and detached questions of policy—the more manly, open, and decided course of bringing under review the whole policy of the Government, legislative and administrative, and of asking the representatives of the nation for their verdict, aye or no, whether the present Government, looking at the general policy which it has pursued, does or does not possess the confidence of this House.
The Conservatives lost the vote then by around twenty votes; but in the following session, as it became clear that the Whigs would shortly call an election on the issue of free trade, Peel put down a motion
That her Majesty’s Ministers do not sufficiently possess the Confidence of the House of Commons, to enable them to carry through the House measures which they deem of essential importance to the public welfare; and that their continuance in office, under such circumstances, is at variance with the spirit of the Constitution.
Since a dissolution was expected anyway, the motion was scarcely a necessary one, and it was generally understood as setting the stage for the election, rather than aimed at achieving a more specifically parliamentary result. But the debate, starting on 27 May and ending at 3 in the morning on 5 June with a victory for Peel on a knife-edge vote, generated tremendous interest and excitement.
Peel’s 1841 vote, not the vote on Walpole a century before, is surely the first real modern vote of no confidence in a government, and it certainly marks a moment at which the formal vote of this kind is acknowledged to be an essential element of the system of parliamentary government– a ‘manly, open, and decided course of bringing under review the whole policy of the Government, legislative and administrative, and of asking the representatives of the nation for their verdict’. But such simple votes of no confidence expressed as such have remained extremely rare – indeed the 1841 no-confidence vote remains one of only two straightforward votes of no confidence ever passed by the House of Commons (the other being that of 1979, though that of January 1924, a no-confidence amendment to the loyal address, might be regarded as nearly fitting the bill). It has been much more common for ministers to resign when they found themselves unable to pass key pieces of legislation, particularly after they have previously indicated that they considered a certain vote a resigning matter, rather than to expect a no-confidence vote as such. In fact, the 1784 and 1835 examples show that the origins of the no-confidence vote lie in occasions when a government which fails to resign in such circumstances hangs on, as it were, since they also demonstrate that it is perfectly possible for a government to cling on to some sort of power without a majority, as long as it does not expect to get anything done, and as long as oppositions are reluctant to wield their ultimate weapon – to withhold, or even just to delay, votes of supply. A proper, formal, vote of no confidence is, under the Fixed Term Parliament Act even more than before, a sort of vote of (nearly) last resort. Even then, as recent discussions have shown, there is plenty of ambiguity still remaining about what it means in practice.