Motion of No Confidence

In Context: Motions of No Confidence, a History

In Context

In Context: Motions of No Confidence, a History

Today the Leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, faces a motion of No Confidence from his parliamentary party. A motion of No Confidence is designed to force a change of leadership, or Government.

Jeremy Corbyn is by no means the first leader of a political party to face such a motion. The last such motion was successfully carried in October 2003. In that motion of no confidence, Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the Conservative party, was ousted by a vote of 90 to 75 and replaced as head of the party and leader of the opposition by Michael Howard.

Motion of No Confidence

Motions of No Confidence in a Government

When a Government has a small majority or is working as a minority / coalition government, it can face overwhelming opposition to legislation. When the Government presents such legislation it is possible for opponents to lodge a vote of no confidence. This may result in legislation being dropped, amended or the vote taking place. These votes have taken place on numerous occasions in British history. The last such successful vote led to the resignation of the Labour Government in 1979.

The First Successful Vote of No Confidence

Arguably the first successful vote of No Confidence in a Government was in 1742. Following a by-election at Chippenham the Government petitioned against the victors being admitted to the house of commons. The ensuing debate resulted in a vote that the government lost. As a result the prime minister, Robert Walpole, resigned after over twenty years of continuous service. This vote though, was no a formal vote of no confidence. It was an example of the government being defeated.

The first formal vote of No Confidence was against the government of Lord North in 1782. The vote came after the Siege of Yorktown. The Government lost, accepted collective responsibility and resigned.

by Pompeo Batoni,painting,1753-1756
by Pompeo Batoni,painting,1753-1756


The progress, or lack of, of the war in America is clearly a major political issue of the day. Other motions of no confidence have also been about events and issues that we look back on as being highly significant.

The Budget has resulted in successful No Confidence votes on several occasions. Alterations to the franchise has sparked such motions. Trade and tariffs have led to votes of no confidence. The ‘Irish Question’ prompted opposition and no confidence votes in the nineteenth century. Minority governments have been overcome on several occasions, with the fall of Callaghan’s Labour Government perhaps the most controversial.

Rules about Votes of No Confidence

Before 2011 there was no binding requirement on a government with regard a motion of no confidence. It was convention and practice that, in the face of losing such a vote, the prime minister or government would resign.

In 2011 it became enshrined in law that a government must survive a vote of confidence within fourteen days of such a motion being made. Failure to do so would result in a General Election.

Failed motions of No Confidence

It is often the case that only the successful motions are remembered. Here is one example of a motion of no confidence that was not successful. In 1942 a motion was raised against Churchill’s government due to the direction in which the war was going. If successful, it would have seen a second change of government during the conflict. The motion was debated in the house of commons and eventually heavily defeated. A detailed summary of this motion can be read here.

Such motions are no exclusive to the United Kingdom. This link provides a summary of such a motion against German politician Willy Brandt.


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