Tuesday 13 June 2017

On Hung Parliaments and Confidence

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act has no shortage of detractors and is often misunderstood. One of the (misplaced) criticisms that has been made of the FTPA is the effect it would have on constitutional convention and practice concerning the vote on a Queen's Speech or a Budget. I wrote this post to try to explain both how the convention concerning the appointment and resignation of governments operates and how, if at all, this has been affected by the FTPA.

The Historical Position

Historically, a Commons defeat on a major bill that was core to the governing platform of the incumbent government would be indicative that the government had "lost the confidence" of the House of Commons. In a Parliamentary democracy (unlike a presidential democracy) a government that does not command the confidence of the elected legislature has lost its legitimacy: its right to govern. As in any other walk of life, if a set of office-holders have "lost the confidence" of those that put them there, we clearly don't just mean that they are wrong; we mean that they are no longer fit to assume their position and to be custodians of their office. A Prime Minister is expected to resign: it is their constitutional duty to do so even if legally they are not required to.

But did they actually have to resign?

The only alternative to resignation that was historically open to a Prime Minister was to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament and to bring about a new set of elections. It might reasonably be thought, however, that this option was only open to a no-confidenced Prime Minister, where there was no clear alternative individual capable of forming a government that would command the confidence of the House of Commons. In those circumstances it would have been open to the monarch to refuse that request, though it would have been extremely unusual for a monarch to refuse such a request and become embroiled in the political merits of a premature dissolution.

In practice, in any instance where a government was composed of a single party having close to an overall majority, including ones that had not long lost them, there would not be an obvious alternative individual from another party capable of commanding the confidence of the Commons. This would make a request to dissolve Parliament and conduct fresh elections a viable course of action. Although the monarch could dismiss their Prime Minister in that interim period if they so wished, in practice they would not do so. It is constitutionally viable, though not without its problems, for the office of Prime Minister to be vacant for a short period of time and for the Cabinet to govern in the interim at the pleasure of the Crown.

Can the Prime Minister try to stay-on without majority Commons support?

Where this gets interesting is in a hung-parliament where there is a large or power-broking third-party. This might mean they have a genuine "choice" as to who they wish to provide Parliamentary support to to enable either of the other two other parties to form a government commanding the confidence of the Commons. This dilemma emerged after the 1974 February and 2010 General Elections, where the incumbent Prime Minister's party fell short of a majority and came second by seats, but where the Official Opposition failed to win an overall majority. Both Ted Heath and Gordon Brown could, constitutionally, have attempted to introduce a Queen's Speech and to try to gain support from smaller parties to see it pass, rather than resign and recommend that the Leader of the Opposition should form a government.

If they lost that Queen's Speech, however, they would be expected to resign just as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin did following the tabling of a motion of no confidence against him on the opening of the 1923 Parliamentary session. He had won the plurality but not the majority of seats in that election, and the other two parties tabled that motion. The resignations of Ted Heath and Gordon Brown were pre-empting a loss of confidence; they were taking the election result, rather than a vote of confidence, as a direct if indicative cue for what they anticipated Parliament would do.

This explains why Theresa May was entitled to continue to stay on as Prime Minister despite falling short of a majority and despite not yet having immediately secured a confidence commitment from the DUP. Under the current Parliamentary arithmetic, the Conservative Party not only is the most viable party to lead a government; it is probably the only party that conceivably could do so. After all, it only requires the DUP to abstain on a vote of confidence to win it if all their own MPs back it; a Labour-led administration would require the explicit support of the DUP (and several other disparate parties) to win a confidence vote. Only if it subsequently becomes clear that Theresa May could not count on the DUP not to oppose her in a confidence vote would an expectation of resignation emerge.

If a coalition or supply-and-confidence deal were to break down during a Parliament, the expectation would be either that an agreement in principle has been reached to form a new Commons majority with another other party (to form a new government) or that no party was able to command the confidence of the House. If the former is the case, the Prime Minister is expected to resign. It would be expected that the Queen invites the Leader of the Opposition (or whoever the coalition parties have agreed is best placed to lead a government) to form a government. If the latter is the case, the Prime Minister might be allowed instead to seek a General Election.

For whom ought a Prime Minister to have resigned?

Technically of course, the Queen can invite anyone to form a government and can ask for the resignation of a Prime Minister. By convention, and extremely sensible practice, she does not do so.

It is possible that someone else from within their own party would be the person best placed, rather than the Leader of the Opposition, in which case it would be open to the Prime Minister to offer their resignation to the monarch and recommend that she invite them to form a government instead. The monarch in modern times would normally seek to avoid involving themselves in any decision of this nature, but a Prime Minister would be putting them in that position if their recommendation to appoint internally was not the most-supported option by the House of Commons.

There is no immediate such example that springs to mind of this happening in British political history. What there is precedent for is a Prime Minister resigning as the leader of their political party before resigning as Prime Minister, once their successor has been appointed according to the relevant party rules. This was what happened with David Cameron's handover to Theresa May, Tony Blair's handover to Gordon Brown and Margaret Thatcher's handover to John Major. In those instances the successor to the Prime Minister was obvious: the leader of the party with a majority of seats in the Commons. It would have been inconceivable in 2007 for the Queen to invite David Cameron to form a government, or for her to ask Neil Kinnock to form one in 1990 or Jeremy Corbyn in 2016.

Unfortunately, without modern precedent for situations where a majority did not exist, the involvement of the monarch is inevitable should a Prime Minister recommend that a member of their own party should be invited to form the government but a sizeable part of the Commons objects that someone else (probably but not necessarily the Leader of the Opposition) should instead be invited. There would need to be constitutional rules put in place to preserve that institutional distance as things stand.

What counts as a motion of no confidence?

A Queen's Speech is clearly a defining question of confidence. It represents the government's proposed legislative programme for the Parliamentary session. Rejecting that is tantamount to rejecting its right to govern.

The annual Budget may be slightly different. Although Finance Bills are critical to the functioning of a government, the failure of a specific budget might not mean that the legislature does not have the confidence in the government to pass a budget. This is an observation that SpinningHugo has made before, though I would add a specific example in support of this premise. While governing as a minority government in Scotland, the SNP initially failed to pass its budget in January 2009. After making concessions to other political parties, it passed at the second attempt. That budget was not taken as an indication that the Scottish Government had lost the confidence of the Scottish Parliament, though repeated failures to get a budget through might.

Another way that the House of Commons can indicate that it has no confidence in the government is simply to table a motion to that effect and to win that vote. This was how James Callaghan was defeated in 1979. Believing that no other individual could any more clearly command the confidence of the House of Commons as elected, he asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament, allowing a fresh set of elections to take place.

What does the Fixed Term Parliaments Act change?

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 removes the prerogative power of premature dissolution of Parliament. The Prime Minister can no longer ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament.

Instead, if an early General Election is to be held, there must either be a vote in favour of one in the Commons supported by not fewer than 434 MPs (as happened to trigger the 2017 General Election) or if a very specific procedure happens.

If the House of Commons passes a motion by a simple majority saying:
"That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government."
And then 14 days pass without it passing a motion saying:
 "That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government."
Parliament is dissolved and a General Election takes place.

This has, effectively, replaced an executive power to trigger an election with a legislative one. The Prime Minister no longer gets to decide whether or not a General Election should be held. This Act, therefore, by implication withdraws the alternative course of action available to a Prime Minister if their government loses a vote of no-confidence. Constitutionally, their only option is to resign. The next best placed person ought then to be invited to form a government. This will often be, but does not have to be the Leader of the Opposition.

What does it not change?

This transfer of power does not change the constitutional conventions that apply concerning whether or not a government should resign. The dissolution of Parliament, in itself, has no bearing on whether or not the Prime Minister is the best placed person to command the confidence of the Commons, even if, during an election itself, there is no sitting House of Commons to express confidence or no confidence.

This transfer of power does not change what constitutes a "vote of no confidence" for the purposes of determining whether or not a Prime Minister is under a constitutional duty to resign. This is a common mistake that both Members of Parliament and journalists have frequently parroted in the last few days. It says instead that, following a specific type of no confidence motion, either a government commanding the confidence of the House must be formed within a fortnight or an election must happen. The Act is completely and utterly silent as to what, constitutionally, ought to happen in that 14 day window.

So what should/could happen?

If the Queen's Speech is voted down, one of three things could happen:

1. The Prime Minister resigns and the Queen invites the Leader of the Opposition to form a government.

If this happens, it is open to the Tories as the largest party immediately to table a motion of no-confidence under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in any government the Leader of the Opposition attempts to form. The (then) Prime Minister would then have to (a) successfully form a government within 14 days and get a positive confidence motion passed; (b) resign; or (c) remain in his position while a General Election takes place.

2. The Prime Minister resigns and the Queen either delays in appointing a new Prime Minister or immediately invites another individual from the current government (probably a senior member of the Cabinet) to attempt to form a government.

If this happens, it is open to the combined party effort that voted-down the Queen's Speech to bring a motion under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and do exactly as the Tories would do in scenario 1.

3. The Prime Minister breaches constitutional convention and refuses to resign.

If this happens, Parliament has a remedy available to it that is constitutionally proper: it can table a FTPA motion of no-confidence and trigger an election.

What's the problem?

What is arguably unhelpful about the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is that the use of "confidence" in the simple majority election trigger may itself be understood as creating an obligation on the government to resign. In scenario 1, for example, this would mean the Leader of the Opposition, within literally hours of being invited to form a government and accepting, could be put under a constitutional duty to resign.

Common sense, however, says that this is clearly not what a motion under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act intends if it immediately follows the resignation of another confidence-defeated government. This is even more clearly not the case when you consider what would have happened before the FTPA was passed. If a Queen's Speech had fallen, and a Prime Minister requested the dissolution of Parliament, the monarch could, constitutionally, have refused that dissolution. In those circumstances, the Prime Minister would have still been expected to resign.

If, however, on attempting to form a government, the invited Leader of the Opposition concluded that they could not command the confidence of the Commons either, they too would then have asked the monarch to dissolve Parliament and bring about another General Election and it would be much more difficult, constitutionally, for the monarch to deny that request. That is what this 14-day period is, constitutionally, intended to do: give a new Prime Minister a chance to broker a deal to form a government.

The nomenclature could, therefore, be cleaned-up a little, but the Act does in fact separate perfectly constitutionally consistently, the questions of formation of a government from the calling of an election.

The real problem?

The only plausible problem with this arrangement is that the political incentives, for a long time, connected the powers and duties of the prime minister as they related to the formation of a government and the dissolution of parliament, and made them almost exactly concurrently exercised. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act breaks the two apart more explicitly. It arguably shifts the political incentives, moreover, on the part of a Prime Minister to take-up option three articulated above. It may now be much easier for a Prime Minister to defy constitutional convention that they should resign on losing a Queen's Speech, on the grounds that "well if they table a FTPA motion of no-confidence I'm only staying on for 14 days anyway before the people can decide". This argument might be especially potent if they represent the largest party and there is no realistic prospect of the Official Opposition forming an alternative government on the present Parliamentary arithmetic.

In these circumstances, it is particularly important that political actors should bring pressure to bear that the existing and not excised constitutional conventions concerning the resignation of a Prime Minister are properly respected. And if they are not respected, as with any other constitutional convention, Parliament should make full use of its remedial powers by forcing the Prime Minister to hold a General Election, and then the electoral process should allow voters to cast a judgment whether the Prime Minister's abuse of power is egregious and indefensible.

If your argument is that these protections are poorly enforced, then I agree. But that's an argument against relying upon constitutional conventions; not against the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. At best it is an argument that the office of Prime Minister should be appointed following an express nomination of a candidate by the House of Commons on a term that expires following the holding of a General Election. It would better guarantee that any appointment to the office of Prime Minister did in fact command the confidence of the Commons. This approach could, for instance, be modeled upon the approach to election of First Minister in the devolved assemblies.

Under sections 45 and 46 of the Scotland Act 1998 for example, the Presiding Officer shall recommend to the monarch a nominated individual to become First Minister, as chosen by the Holyrood Parliament. Such a nomination takes place whenever there is a vacancy, or following an election. If no nomination is made within 28 days, the Parliament is dissolved and another election is held. In the event of a vacancy, the Presiding Officer can delegate the functions of First Minister to another individual for the duration of that vacancy. This approach might clean-up the ambiguity of what is meant by a "confidence" motion in the FTPA.

The truth is that the old system that preceded the Fixed Term Parliaments Act would have handled this type of situation no better than the current one. It allowed Prime Ministers to escape resignation by appealing immediately and directly to the country, even when an alternative viable government could be formed from the democratically elected Parliament. These decisions are no longer a privilege the Prime Minister enjoys, exploiting in the process the political sensitivity of the Crown. It is instead for Parliament itself to decide.

For a Parliament man like me, that is, when all is said and done, a no bad thing.

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