Motions of no confidence in the United Kingdom

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Motions of no confidence, also called votes of confidence,[1] votes of no-confidence[2] or censure motions,[1] are a feature of the Westminster system of government used in the United Kingdom that requires an executive to retain the confidence of the House of Commons. It is a fundamental principle of the British constitution that the Government must retain the confidence of the legislature as it is not possible for a Government to operate effectively without the support of the majority of the legislature.[3]

In last resort the principle is based upon the government's dependence upon the House of Commons for "political capital".[4] It is possible for a vote of no confidence to succeed where there is a minority government, a small majority or where there are internal party splits. Where there is a minority government, the government may seek agreements or pacts with minor parties in order to remain in office. Despite their importance to the British constitution, the rules surrounding motions of no confidence are dictated by convention. A defeat in a vote of no confidence will oblige a government to resign or seek a dissolution of Parliament.[5] A no confidence vote was last successfully used on 28 March 1979, when the minority government of James Callaghan was defeated in a confidence motion which read "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government".[6] A no confidence vote can have the effect of uniting the ruling party; for this reason such motions are rarely used and successful motions are even rarer.[7] Before 1979 the last successful motion of no confidence occurred in 1924.[8]


Since 1945 there have been 3 votes of confidence and 23 of no confidence.[9]


Motions of no confidence fall into three categories. Motions initiated by the Government, those initiated by the Opposition, and motions which can be regarded as issues of confidence because of particular circumstances.[6] The first category are effectively threats of dissolution as occurred in 1993 so that John Major could pass the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty.


Opposition motions are initiated by the Opposition party and often occur with little chance of a confidence motion succeeding. By convention a no confidence vote will take precedence over normal Parliamentary business for that day and will begin with Speeches from the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition rather than the Ministers for the policy area which may be the concern of the motion. Not every no confidence motion will profess no confidence in the Government, some no confidence motions only state no confidence in the particular policies of a government. Probably the most famous no confidence motion was on the night of 28 March 1979 when Jim Callaghan's Labour Government fell from office by one vote, 311-310.[10] It was one of the most dramatic nights in Westminster's history.[11]

Although there is no commonly accepted and comprehensive definition of a confidence motion it is possible to identify confidence motions from their timing, the speakers and the terms of the motion.[6] Motions of confidence are supportive of the Government whereas motions of no confidence are unsupportive of the Government. It can be difficult to distinguish an opposition no confidence motion and other opposition motions critical of Government policy. The term censure motion can also refer a category of motion which does not attempt to remove the Government.

A Government can also be forced into resigning or calling an election by a lost vote on the Queen's Speech (The government's legislative programme), losing a Finance Bill or a vote on a major issue on which it fought a General Election campaign.[3][dated info]

Successful no confidence votes[edit]

Colour key
(for political parties)
Name of Prime Minister against whom motion passed Date Subject of Motion Result & Majority against Ministry Consequences
Sir Robert Walpole 28 January 1742 Ministerial petition against the return of 2 Members of Parliament for Chippenham [12] 235-236 & 1 Resigned on 11 February.[13]
Lord North 27 February 1782 Motion to end offensive war in America[14] 234-215 & 19 Resigned on 22 March.[15]
William Pitt 2 February 1784 Motion of no confidence[16] 223-204 & 19 Advised the King to dissolve Parliament, which he did on 25 March.[17]
The Duke of Wellington 15 November 1830 Motion to examine the accounts of the Civil List[18] 204-233 & 29 Resigned on 16 November.
Sir Robert Peel 7 April 1835 Report on the Irish Church[19] 285-258 & 27 Resigned on 8 April.[20]
The Viscount Melbourne 4 June 1841 Motion of no confidence[21] 312-311 & 1 Advised the Queen to dissolve Parliament, which she did on 23 June - see next entry.[22]
The Viscount Melbourne 27 August 1841[23] Amendment to the Address[24] - see here for more details of this procedure 269-360 & 91 Resigned on 30 August.[25][26]
Sir Robert Peel 25 June 1846 Irish Coercion Bill[27] 219-292 & 73 Resigned on 27 June.[28]
Lord John Russell later The Earl Russell 20 February 1852 Militia Bill[29] 125-136 & 11 Resigned on 21 February.[30]
The Earl of Derby 16 December 1852[31] Budget[32] 286-305 & 19 Resigned on 17 December.[33]
The Earl of Aberdeen 29 January 1855[34] Vote in favour of a select committee to enquire into alleged mismanagement during the Crimean War[35] 305-148 & 157 Resigned on 30 January.[36]
The Viscount Palmerston 19 February 1858[37] Bill which made it a felony to plot in Britain to murder someone abroad[38] 215-234 & 19 Resigned on 21 February.[39]
The Earl of Derby 10 June 1859[40] Amendment to the Address[41] 323-310 & 13 Resigned on 11 June.[42]
The Earl Russell formerly Lord John Russell 18 June 1866 Parliamentary reform proposals[43] 325-304 & 11 Resigned on 26 June.[44]
William Ewart Gladstone 8 June 1885[45] Budget[46] 252-264 & 12 Resigned on 9 June.[47]
The Marquess of Salisbury 26 January 1886[48] Amendment to the Address[49] 329-250 & 79 Resigned on 28 January.[50]
William Ewart Gladstone 7 June 1886[51] The Government of Ireland Bill[52] 311-341 & 30 Advised the Queen to dissolve Parliament, which she did on 26 June.[53]
The Marquess of Salisbury 11 August 1892[54] Amendment to the Address[55] 350-310 & 40 Resigned on 11 August.[56]
Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery 21 June 1895 The Cordite Vote[57] 132-125 & 7 Resigned on 21 June.[58]
Stanley Baldwin 21 January 1924 Amendment to the Address[59] 328-251 & 77 Resigned on 22 January.[60]
Ramsay MacDonald 8 October 1924 Motion in respect of the Campbell Case[61] 364-198 & 166 Advised the King dissolve Parliament, which he did on 9 October.[62]
James Callaghan 28 March 1979 Motion of no confidence[63] 311-310 & 1 Advised the Queen to dissolve Parliament, which she did on 7 April.[62]

Constitutional practice[edit]

If a government wins a confidence motion they are able to remain in office. If a confidence motion is lost then the Government is obliged to resign or seek a dissolution of Parliament and call a General Election. Although this is a convention, there is no law to say that the Government has to resign but it is very unlikely they would not and it would cause uproar if they did not. Modern practice shows dissolution rather than resignation to be the result of a defeat. The government is only obliged to resign if it loses a confidence vote, although a significant defeat on a major issue may lead to a confidence motion.

During the period 1945-1970 Governments were rarely defeated in the House of Commons and the impression grew that if a Government was defeated it must reverse the decision, seek a vote of confidence, or resign.[64]

Brazier argues: "it used to be the case that a defeat on a major matter had the same effect as if an explicit vote of confidence had carried" but that a development in constitutional practice has occurred since the 1970s. Thatcher's defeat over the Shops Bill 1986 did not trigger a confidence motion despite being described as ‘a central piece of their legislative programme’. The government simply accepted that they could not pass the bill and gave assurances to Parliament that they would not introduce it.[5]

After a defeat on a major issue of government policy the Government may resign, dissolve Parliament, or seek a vote of confidence from the House. Recent historical practice has been to seek a vote of confidence from the House. John Major did this after defeat over the "Social Protocol" of the Maastricht Treaty.[5] Defeats on minor issues do not raise any constitutional questions.[5]

Recent practice[edit]

Michael Martin[edit]

A proposed motion of no confidence can force a resignation. For example, in 2009 the proposed vote of no confidence in the Speaker of the House of Commons forced the resignation of Michael Martin in the wake of the Parliamentary Expenses Scandal. Several MPs breached a constitutional convention and openly called for the resignation of the Speaker. Those Members of Parliament were:

Fixed Term Act[edit]

A motion of no confidence has yet to be called under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. It remains to be seen how the act will affect a motion of no confidence in practice.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Censure motions". BBC News. 2008-08-13. Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ Turpin, C (2002) British Government and the Constitution 5th Ed p487
  5. ^ a b c d
  6. ^ a b c
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Parliamentary progress: HE Bill". BBC News. 2004-01-27. Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  10. ^ "1979: Early election as Callaghan defeated". BBC News. 1979-03-28. Retrieved 2015-04-19. 
  11. ^ "The Night the Government Fell". BBC News. 26 March 2009. Retrieved 20 April 2010. 
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ [2]
  14. ^ DNB accessed 5 Sept 2012
  15. ^ 10 Downing Street biography
  16. ^ British general election, 1784#Background
  17. ^ British general election, 1784
  18. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 15 November 1830. col. 549. 
  19. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 7 April 1835. col. 969. 
  20. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 4
  21. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 4 June 1841. col. 1241. 
  22. ^ Rallings & Thrasher (2000), p. 120
  23. ^ A Friday
  24. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 27 August 1841. col. 449. 
  25. ^ A Monday
  26. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 6
  27. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 25 June 1846. col. 1027. 
  28. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 8
  29. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 20 February 1852. col. 874. 
  30. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 11
  31. ^ House adjourned at 3.45AM on 17 December
  32. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 16 December 1852. col. 1693. 
  33. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 14
  34. ^ House adjourned at 1.45AM on 30 January
  35. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 29 January 1855. col. 1230. 
  36. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 16
  37. ^ House adjourned at 1.30AM on 20 February
  38. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 19 February 1858. col. 1844. 
  39. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 18
  40. ^ House adjourned at 2.30AM on 11 June
  41. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 10 June 1859. col. 416. 
  42. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 21
  43. ^ The vote is not recorded in the online Hansard, but is referred to at |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 19 June 1866. col. 648. 
  44. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 22
  45. ^ House adjourned at 1.45AM on 9 June
  46. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 8 June 1885. col. 1511. 
  47. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 33
  48. ^ House adjourned at 1.15AM on 27 January
  49. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 26 January 1886. col. 525. 
  50. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 36
  51. ^ House adjourned at 1.30AM on 8 June
  52. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 7 June 1886. col. 1240. 
  53. ^ Rallings & Thrasher (2000), p. 121
  54. ^ House adjourned at 12.25AM on 12 August
  55. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 11 August 1892. col. 430. |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 11 August 1892. col. 433. 
  56. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 39
  57. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 21 June 1895. col. 1712. 
  58. ^ Cook & Keith (1975), p. 42
  59. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 21 January 1924. col. 680. 
  60. ^ Butler & Butler (1994), p. 8
  61. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 8 October 1924. col. 700. 
  62. ^ a b Rallings & Thrasher (2000), p. 122
  63. ^ |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 28 March 1979. col. 584. 
  64. ^
  65. ^ "Politics | Clegg calls on Speaker to resign". BBC News. 2009-05-17. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  66. ^ "Daily Express | UK News :: Pressure grows on Martin to go". Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  67. ^ "Scotland | Scots MPs split over Martin calls". BBC News. 2009-05-17. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  68. ^ "News - West Midlands News - MP backing calls for Speaker to quit". Birmingham Post. 2009-05-14. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  69. ^
  70. ^ a b "Now Liberal Democrats join calls for Commons Speaker to resign | Mail Online". 2009-05-14. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  71. ^ Helm, Toby (2009-05-17). "Downing Street distances itself from Speaker as no confidence vote looms | Politics | The Observer". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  72. ^ a b c d e Porter, Andrew (2009-05-18). "Gordon Brown leaves Speaker Michael Martin's future in doubt: MPs' expenses". London: The Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-05-19. 
  73. ^ a b c d e f g h Table Office, House of Commons. "Future Business Part C". Retrieved 2009-05-19. [dead link]
  74. ^ "Norfolk MP joins calls on Speaker to quit". EDP24. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  75. ^ David Davis. "DAVID DAVIS: Only the Speaker can restore faith in Parliament. That is why Mr Martin must go | Mail Online". Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  76. ^ a b c Sparrow, Andrew (2009-05-13). "Labour MPs join Tory to call for Speaker to resign". London: "The Guardian". Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  77. ^ "The campaign to ditch Speaker Martin gathers pace | Coffee House". 2009-05-11. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  78. ^ "Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg Says Speaker Michael Martin Must Resign | Politics | Sky News". 2008-06-23. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 


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