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What’s the relationship between the UK Parliament and the Government?

Below we set out the complexities of the relationship between the UK Parliament and the Government in developing and passing laws.

Political theorists in the late 18th century developed the idea that democracy is better protected by the separation of powers between the Government/Executive, the Legislature/Parliament and the Judiciary so that power is not concentrated in any one and they check and balance each other. 

An incomplete UK political system

In the British System the separation of powers is not complete. 

  • The Government, and not Parliament, still brings forward almost all policies and proposals for legislation but the Prime Minister and Government Ministers are members of Parliament and they need to keep the support of the House of Commons to continue.  

This is different from the United States where the executive and legislature are clearly separated and the President is directly elected and remains President even if there is no majority for his party in Congress. 

  • A Parliament lasts until the next general election but there is a new session each year. Whichever party wins the general election and therefore has a parliamentary majority forms the Government and the Queen will call on the leader of the winning party to be Prime Minister. 
  • With 650 MPs and the Speaker and the three Deputy Speakers not voting in divisions, 324 MPs are needed for a majority.  A small majority of 20 or less can be a problem if MPs become seriously ill or rebellious or the Government starts to lose by-elections and so its day to day majority dwindles as happened to both the Callaghan and Major Governments. 

If no party has a majority of seats the Queen will expect the largest party to sort out an agreement with other parties so that it can survive or the existing Prime Minister who has lost a majority in the election to see if a Coalition is possible. 

Coalitions and largest parties

In 2010, the Conservatives were the biggest party and negotiated with the Liberal Democrats to form a Coalition so that the two parties between them formed a parliamentary majority. 

This worked reasonably well with rebellions by Liberal Democrat MPs on the left and Conservative MPs on the right but on different issues so that the Government’s majority was enough to withstand these. A Coalition involving more and smaller parties would be much more difficult to manage.

If the Leader of the largest party is unable to form a Government the Queen will call on the leader of the next biggest party to do the same.  

A Government does not have to have a majority in the House of Commons and the leader of the largest party may decide to form a minority government, perhaps with an informal agreement with smaller parties. 

The Prime Minister may look to continue for a year or so and if the opinion polls look favourable call a general election, as Labour did in 1974.

Motions of no confidence

Governments have always had to resign if they lose a motion of confidence put down by the Prime Minister or a motion of no confidence put down by the Opposition.  These motions are rare. 

The Opposition will choose to put down a motion of no confidence when it feels that the Government is particularly weak on an issue though generally with no expectation of winning.  

In even rarer circumstances a Prime Minister will put down a motion of confidence to restore authority after a small group of his or her own party have failed to support the Government on an important issue with the threat that the Government will have to resign if they continue to rebel.  

John Major had to call a vote of confidence in 1993 after he had failed to carry a vote on the EU Maastricht Treaty.  

The convention has been that a Government has to resign immediately if it loses a confidence vote as the Labour Government did in 1979, when it lost by one vote.  

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act, 2011 has changed this by giving the Prime Minister, after losing a vote of confidence, 14 days to hold another vote to reverse it. It also provides for a general election to be called if two thirds of MPs vote for this to happen, creating a new but very unlikely way of bringing down a Government

The Queen’s Speech

The Queen’s Speech is the statement that the Queen reads out when a new Parliament opens each year.

It sets out the Government’s proposals for legislation in the coming year and the Government’s general view on other areas such as foreign policy. 

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act

Until the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, 2011 Governments had to resign if they lost a vote on the Queen’s Speech or their Budget.  The Act appears to say that a Government now only has to resign if it loses a confidence vote and then not win another one within 14 days.

In practice, a Prime Minister would probably have to call a confidence vote to restore authority in the Government after losing a vote on either of these major areas.