Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images Today started with reports that Downing Street had “let it be known” that Theresa May would make votes on the Customs Union a matter of “confidence.” The implication seemed to be that if she lost she would call a general election. By mid-morning officials had rowed back. Making votes in parliament a matter of “confidence” in the government used to be one of the prime minister’s biggest sticks. They could threaten backbenchers that if they didn’t fall into line they would have to go and face the electorate. It was less of a threat to MPs with safe seats—although even they would rather see out a full-term without the hard work of electioneering with voters who might not appreciate the opportunity to vote, again. To coin a phrase, “wot, another one?” But for MPs in marginals the threat of another election could mean unemployment. There were roughly three levels of “confidence” vote. The first, by convention, was almost mandatory—if a government lost a vote on the Queen’s Speech or its Budget it amounted to a no confidence vote and the PM had to call an Election. Or so it was said. In practice things were rather more flexible and over the past 100 years governments have several times lost votes on finance motions without going to the country, although very rarely on anything really big. There are also, on finance issues, protections in the House of Commons’ own rule book that make it hard to defeat the government. The second level pertained to things that were in the government’s manifesto. Major defeats on legislation could be seen as votes of no confidence, but again, in practice, they very rarely were. The third and most powerful lever from the prime minister’s point of view was to declare that a defeat on “x” would be regarded as a vote of no confidence and she or he would nip over to Buckingham Palace and ask for parliament to be dissolved. The last time a government actually fell on a confidence vote was 1979. On 28th March the House of Commons passed a motion of no confidence in Jim Callaghan’s Labour government by just one vote (311-310) and a general election was called. The issue of “confidence” votes has thus always been a double-edge sword—it could be used to bring down a government. But it could also, and much more frequently, be used as a big stick to keep rebels in line. Whilst the fall of Labour in 1979 illustrated how powerful a confidence vote could be in the hands of the Opposition, the experience of John Major as PM showed how much it was weakening as a tool to keep backbenchers “in line.” The prolonged battles over the Maastricht Treaty in the House of Commons with a group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs—who Major famously dubbed “the bastards”—showed how weakened the threat of making an issue one of “confidence” was becoming. Major’s solution was to try a different form of “confidence” vote. He resigned as Leader of the Tory Party, but not as PM, and stood for re-election. He won by 218 votes to John Redwood’s 89 and carried on as PM, using Labour support to force through the Treaty. Research by Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart has shown there has been an increasing tendency for backbench rebellions against government positions over the past couple of decades, starting with Major but continuing under Blair, Brown, Cameron and now May. So, if the “big stick” and party discipline was becoming weaker, how are prime ministers to hold onto power? The answer came in the form of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) in 2011. When the Coalition Government brought in the FTPA the prime minister apparently gave up the right to arbitrarily call a general election at any time they chose, or to threaten to make something a “confidence” issue, in return for a fixed five years in office. The FTPA was designed to do two things—to protect a minority or coalition government from being forced to call an early General Election by the Opposition and, crucially, to protect the Coalition partners against each other. Ironically, as I have argued elsewhere, it made rebellions more likely but at the same time it weakened their impact because only a formal motion under the terms of the Act was going to bring down a government. Anything else they could survive. And even if the Commons passed a motion of “no confidence” under the terms of the Act, there is still a 14-day period in which the government can come back and try again, with a change of personnel, or policy, or both. The line that seemed to come out of Downing Street first thing this morning harked back to the old era when threatening to make something an issue of confidence had bite. That had already lost a lot of its force from the 1990s onwards, under the FTPA it becomes almost meaningless. In the new era created by the FTPA, May would be better off looking at how John Major dealt with the confidence issue than harking back to the era of Jim Callaghan.