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…