A motion of censure falls short of a full no confidence vote in the government—but it could be used to show parliament has lost faith in the Prime Ministerby Alice Lilly / December 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street on Wednesday. Photo: PA Theresa May has survived one major challenge to her leadership. Rumours persist, though, that another challenge could come in the Commons in the form of a relatively rare parliamentary procedure—a motion of censure against the Prime Minister. Crucially, this would be different from a full no-confidence motion. Motions of censure can be tabled, in the form of an Early Day Motion, to criticise the conduct of an individual minister—including the Prime Minister. But if debated, and if passed, it would not trigger the same process that a no-confidence motion would. Under the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, no-confidence motions have changed. Now, if a government loses a formal vote of no confidence, it sets a clock ticking. If, within 14 days, no alternative government can be formed that secures the explicit confidence of the Commons, then a general election will be called. But this would not be the case if a motion of censure against the Prime Minister were debated and passed. This situation would place considerable political pressure on Theresa May, but it would not automatically trigger a countdown towards an early election. This is why a motion of censure is being discussed as a prospect. While it is clear that a significant number of Conservative MPs no longer want Theresa May as their leader, they are also deeply reticent about the prospect of a general election. These MPs would therefore be highly unlikely, yet, to support a formal no-confidence motion against May’s government. The same is true of the Government’s confidence-and-supply partners, the DUP, who are unhappy with May but are still implying they would support her in a confidence vote. A motion of censure is a way the Prime Minister’s unruly MPs can pile pressure by collecting signatures against her (though some MPs may be less willing to do this publicly than they were in the secrecy of the Conservative leadership ballot) without automatically beginning a countdown to an election. And for Labour and the other opposition parties, this would offer a clear means to embarrass the Government. However, those around the Prime Minister are unlikely to be too worried by such a threat, as it faces a major stumbling block: parliamentary time. Conventionally, if the official Opposition tables a motion of no-confidence, then the government finds time to debate it. But this convention is not thought to extend to censure motions—and the government would be unlikely to give time for it. That would mean that the Opposition would have to use some of their allotted time to debate the motion. But while the amount of time that must be given to opposition parties is set out in the parliamentary rules, it is up to the government when that time is scheduled—and again, the government would be unlikely to schedule an Opposition Day soon if the threat of a censure motion loomed. Even if a censure motion against the Prime Minister were debated and passed, it would not have any binding effect. Certainly, it would be yet more embarrassment for Theresa May, and put her under even greater political pressure. But it would not force her to resign, and it would not automatically lead to the collapse of the government. She could simply choose, yet again, to press on. Ultimately, the likelihood of the motion being debated—and even passed—is relatively small, given the government’s control of how business in the Commons is scheduled. And it would be unusual to use a censure motion in this way—but this is an unusual Parliament, where MPs have repeatedly pored over parliamentary rules to try and find procedures they can creatively deploy.