University 18 Yrs + | Parliament
Governments have lost three confidence motions in the 20th century.
The Conservatives emerged from the 1923 general election as the largest party but without an overall majority and Baldwin decided to go to Parliament and await a vote on the King’s Speech which would be a matter of confidence. Labour and the Liberals combined to defeat him and the King called on Labour as the next largest party to form a Government. The Labour Government was defeat on a confidence motion later in the year and a general election was called. The James Callaghan Labour Government did not have a majority after losing by-elections and was eventually defeated on a Conservative no confidence motion by one vote.
The Opposition can put forward a no confidence motion but reserves this for major issues, or if it thinks it can win, so as not to devalue the importance of the occasion and there has been less than one a year since 1960. It is rather less clear what a confidence motion is, as MPs found when they came to look at the changes proposed in what is now the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Basically they were when the Prime Minister says a vote is a confidence motion.
In the past almost any lost vote by the Government could be seen as a matter of confidence and lead to a vote and the 1924 Labour Government fell over the failure to prosecute the author of a Communist article which was seen as seditious, but Harold Wilson, on forming the minority Labour Government in 1974, announced that he would not see a vote on a piece of legislation as a matter of confidence.
It is difficult to be sure what would now be made a confidence issue though a defeat on the Budget almost certainly would be. John Major, with a small majority in Parliament, lost the vote to agree the Maastricht Treaty, which provided for a major extension of European integration, and called a motion of confidence to pass it the next day to bring Conservative rebels in to line as the alternative to voting for the Government would have been an immediate general election.
Tony Blair and David Cameron
Blair did not make the vote to go to war with Iraq a motion of confidence, though he said he would have resigned if he had lost, and Cameron did not with the Syria vote, though he no doubt would have won it if he had. This means that even a major foreign policy defeat does not have to be seen as a matter of confidence by Governments, though the Opposition could make it one. The Fixed Term Parliament Act, 2011, gives the exact wording of a Confidence motion but Prime Minister still have leeway as to when to call one.