Johnson’s Queen’s speech WILL be a confidence vote. Here’s why

Commentators frequently say Fixed Term Parliaments Act means traditional no-confidence votes are defunct – but it’s not so. Here’s why

The media’s talking heads have discussed at length whether Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may call a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s government next week under the provisions of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA).

“The ability of a government to command the confidence of the elected House of Commons is central to its authority to govern. It is tested by votes on motions of confidence, or no confidence.”
The Cabinet Manual

However, the likelihood that the time will be right for such an attempt has receded, because of the squeamishness of Tory MPs at the thought of backing an Opposition motion – and even more because of the posturing of LibDems and other centrist MPs.

Another option

But there is another option, about which Tories and centrists may feel less squeamish – a defeat of the Queen’s Speech that the monarch will deliver in October to lay out Boris Johnson’s supposed legislative programme.

Many pundits routinely tell viewers and readers that the FTPA has superseded other, traditional forms of no-confidence vote, such as the defeat of a Queen’s Speech. Murdoch journalist Tim Shipman, for example, has written:

Since the passage of the Fixed Term Parliament Act in 2011, defeat on a Queen’s Speech was no longer seen, constitutionally, as a confidence motion that would force a prime minister’s resignation.

However, the routine conclusion is incorrect – and both Parliament and the government that implemented the FTPA have themselves said so.

PACAC and Briefing Paper 02873

House of Commons Briefing Paper 02873 (CBP), written only in March this year, is explicit on the issue. The CBP noted that a PACAC (Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee) report published last December specifically addressed claims that the FTPA had “has superseded the pre-existing conventions around the confidence of the House in the Government” – and that the PACAC report responded with:

the very firm view that the Act has in no way affected the ability of the House to express no confidence in the Government through other means

If the House of Commons resolves, by whatever means, that it has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government, this removes the incumbent administration’s authority to govern. It is for Parliament, not the Government, to assert the terms under which this confidence (or lack thereof) is expressed. This can be through the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 statutory motion, or through a non-statutory motion of no confidence, or through a vote to which the matter of confidence has been clearly attached by the Government. Any expression of no confidence by the House in the government, removes the authority to govern

Just as importantly, page 13 of the CBP notes that the government does not have to say a vote is a confidence matter, as long as MPs generally understand that it is one:

Other motions put down by the Government or the Opposition treated by the Government (whether expressly declared as such or not) as, or because of the particular circumstances can be regarded as, motions of censure or confidence.

The government’s own intent

But it is not just the CBP that says the FTPA was not intended to limit the use of previous expressions of no confidence. The Cameron government that brought in the Act said so too, in response to a parliamentary committee’s report on the Act:

The Bill is focussed on establishing fixed terms and the procedures for calling extraordinary elections. The aim of the Bill is not otherwise to interfere with the conventions which govern the position where the Government loses the confidence of the House. The Government considers that such matters are better left to convention.

The CBP does state that a vote on the Queen’s Speech has never been tested as a no-confidence vote on its own, because the only time a monarch’s speech has been defeated (the King’s Speech of 1924), the successful amendment to it also contained a specific expression of no confidence.

Clearly-understood precedent

However, it’s clear that the defeat of a Queen’s speech has always been understood to be a no-confidence vote, as even Tim Shipman noted above. The Institute for Government recently referred to to that clear precedent in an article on the potential defeat of Johnson’s planned Queen’s Speech:

Although a politically damaging defeat on the Queen’s Speech would not automatically lead to an election under the Fixed-terms Parliament Act, it has historically been seen as a confidence matter

What happens next

What the FTPA does change is what happens after a successful no-confidence vote. In previous eras, as the CBP notes, either the government would immediately resign and be replaced by the official Opposition, or the monarch would dissolve Parliament and trigger a general election.

However, under the terms of the FTPA a successful no-confidence vote triggers a fourteen-day period in which any would-be replacement government needs to win a vote of confidence in order to begin government – and the failure to do so then leads to a general election. This would apply to any form of successful no-confidence vote, not just one using the specific wording of an FTPA-compliant motion.

Constitutional crisis

A defeat of this government’s Queen’s Speech would be a no-confidence vote, as has always been the case. In spite of commentators’ claims to the contrary, the FTPA has not changed that – and both Parliament and the government have said it was never intended to.

Such a defeat would automatically remove the government’s right to govern – and trigger a fourteen-day period in which Corbyn’s Labour could take office if it was able to win a confidence vote. If not, the UK would have another early general election.

Assuming, of course, that Boris Johnson did not try to simply ignore Parliament’s expression of no-confidence and cling to office. If he did that, it would be a constitutional crisis of a scale to tower over the current anger about Johnson’s decision to mislead the Queen into suspending Parliament so he can try to prevent MPs blocking his headlong rush to a no-deal Brexit.

Conclusion

Out of ignorance or ulterior motive, much of the media has misled viewers and readers about the state of law and precedent since the FTPA came into force.

But should Parliament try to defeat the Speech? It’s not as clear-cut or straightforward as it might seem at first glance. The next article on the matter will examine the landscape of October’s Queen’s Speech – and the pitfalls that may not be apparent to casual, or even passionate, observers.

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20 responses to “Johnson’s Queen’s speech WILL be a confidence vote. Here’s why

  1. Interesting.

    Particularly : ” under the terms of the FTPA a successful no-confidence vote triggers a fourteen-day period in which any would-be replacement government needs to win a vote of confidence in order to begin government ”

    Because that probably makes the notion of a brief Corbyn administration unlikely, and implies an uncontrolled outcome resulting in a GE.

    Perhaps, above all, the current situation has brought to the for the urgent need to sort out the constitutional situation in this country. The facade has been stripped away to reveal a rotting corpse.

  2. “…page 13 of the CBP notes that the government does not have to say a vote is a confidence matter, as long as MPs generally understand that it is one…”
    Absent any more precise definition a simple majority is clearly meant by “MPs generally” – I suspect His Corpulence will claim it means two thirds or more though.

    If he tries to deny the right of parliament to remove him from office I hope the Sergeant at Arms uses the handcuffs.

  3. I think over the next few weeks we will gradually understand that this cowboy government will laugh and ignore whatever the elected parliament decides.We will see that without a bill of rights and a written constitution anything we do can be ignored by using the Royal prerogative again……We missed a lot of chances to draught somthing in writing to protect the people from the likes of this unelected regime we now have…..when Tony Blair was in power and Labour looked at the need for a constitution and a oath of allegiance….All basically ended up kicked into the long grass for being too time consuming and complicated.If we ever get another chance,hopfully we shall take it……..The people of this country deserve better than this dogs dinner!

    • You are absolutely right that a lot of the problems we have now are down to the failure of the Blair goverment to seize an opportunity for reform.

      A lot has focused – naturally – on the concessions to right wing ecomomics and social policies. But another aspect was the half-baked efforts at some fundamental and necessary reforms to drag Backward Britain into the 21st century.

      Land reform stopped at limited open access (Scotland did better). The HoL was left as a dog’s dinner after weedy half-measures. Devolution was badly thought out. Attempts at regional government were half-baked and fell at the hurdle of the NE. Local goverment’s client status in relation to Westminster was reinforced rather than changed … and other constitutional issues, such as voting structures, were simply left to fester.

      I reckon that there was (about) a three year window left begging when serious change might have been made. I was a councillor at that time, and watched people like Blunkett pursuing counterproductive policies (in education), Tory mythologies about housing, planning and other local services being avidly eaten up whilst we were being lectured about ‘modernisation’. Meanwhile the fundamentals went walkabout.

      What we have now is the natural consequence of that wilful neglect when the opportunity was there.

      • When serving has a councillor,we recieved a consultative document regarding reform.. I made some serios proposels for reform a constitution and a new oath of allegiance to the people not the windsors,I also made proposals regarding the act of settlement and the royal prerogative…..none were adopted and we just tinkered round the edges,We had a massive mandate from the people and a landslide win…..We really could have changed things,but instead a reforming Labour PM ran away from confrontation and joined Bush to bomb civilians into the stone age……and from there we gave away any chance of reform,and I left the Labour party and local government disillusioned and bitter!…Sometimes we have to aceppt that the time will never be right,but if we ever get another chance for change we must grasp it and move forward with a democracy for the people…for the many not the few!

  4. Yes lock him up! Lock him up!
    And the barbarians Cummings and De Costa too!

  5. Our constitution relies entirely on parties playing the game and abiding by various precedents and unwritten codes of conduct,
    Fine and dandy until this far right English nationalist rump pissed on it
    On any other planet Mayhem and cheap and nasty Tory party would have been out on their ear, when was the last time they had the confidence of the house,
    Now when Mini Maggie May handed over she had to give an assurance to Her Maj that Boris had the confidence of the house, which was clearly bollocks,
    At that stage Betty’s advisers should have insisted on Cummings glove puppet holding a vote of confidence,
    Finally if there is overwhelming evidence that the PM and government are in contempt of parliament, twice, Betty can call them in and insist they hold a vote or call a GE,
    There is something rotten in the heart of Rome and it’s called the Tory party, this entire shitfest is down to the Psychodrama running through it since 1979, this is the Milksnatchers legacy to the country,
    REJOICE

    • Doug Yes bettys advisors….privey council chaired by mogg in secret with the betty.. More Royal pantomime than democracy

  6. There isn’t much doubt that a vote on the Queens Speech-setting out the legislative agenda for Parliament is a Confidence vote.
    There is a real possibility that, given the polls and the cacophony of wishful thinking from the media, other parties might be tempted to call an election in the expectation of increasing their power.
    The trick then will be to make the campaign one about real issues-ends-rather than the means of escaping the Thatcherite(Blairite) embrace of the new Holy Roman Empire.

  7. I’m not sure if Corbyn’s enemies will feel any less squeamish about voting down a Queen’s speech than they would an early VONC. The imperative is to ensure that any of the wreckers understand that if they don’t support Jeremy Corbyn there is no place for them in the LP.

  8. In these unprecedented times, maybe it’s time for Sinn Féin to come on board against Johnson, even given the possibility that the prospect of a disunited Kingdome could be to their benefit.

    • No chance Jack No republican can swear loyalty to The Royal family and why should they….I was allowed as a borough council to swear loyalty to the people of Britain.. Its never going to happen jack in parliament and why should it the establishment and a lot of the people support the archaic system we live under.How many politician’s challenge the system as I did.. Not many,they don’t rock the boat that’s why we choose them isn’t it…?

    • Oh – I thought you meant Charlie’s disunited head – stuffed, on a plinth, under a nice glass dome.
      Sorry, was getting you mixed up with that rascally Fenian O’Keefe… 🙂

      • David you just might get me on the list,but possibly already on it,you know what the thought police are like.?…Maybe the word Royal and constitution operate my trip switch

  9. A question which is necessarily prior to the one that Skwarkbox is posing is surely whether it would be in the Party’s interests to have an election soon.

    The answer is now a resounding “no”. Since changing its position on the EU a few weeks ago, Labour now has far less chance of winning the all-important Tory-held Leave-voting marginal target seats. 70% of these seats voted Leave. Winning these seats appears to be the only realistic way of achieving a Labour government, but backing the Second Referendum plus Remain makes it highly unlikely that they will return Labour MPs.

    Voters in these seats are not likely to be swayed by arguments from Corbyn et al that Brexit is a bit of a distraction and that the NHS and so on are the main issues. An autumn election will be the Brexit election.

    As a result Labour is heading for a worse result (quite possibly a far worse result) than 2017. Whether Labour would fare much better in a few years time is anyone’s guess, but an election in the near future is certainly no longer in Labour’s best interests.

    • Voters are “not likely” to go for the it’s-not-about-brexit, it’s-about-our-policies / an early election is “certainly” not in Labour’s interests. Hmmm, not sure the logic stacks up there – peer review might well pick up on the leap from “not likely” to “certainly”, but this is the internet so no need for rigour?

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