View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
6 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:19pm

Does Boris Johnson have to resign as Prime Minister if he loses a confidence vote?

By Stephen Bush

If the government loses a confidence vote, does the prime minister have to resign?

The answer is complicated. There’s nothing written in British law that compels a prime minister to resign after an election defeat – technically, it’s the role of the monarch to remove a prime minister who can no longer command a majority in the House of Commons.

But a British monarch hasn’t used this power since 1834 – and hasn’t been personally involved in a change of government since 1894, when Queen Victoria opted to send for Archibald Rosebery, a Liberal peer on the party’s right, rather than William Harcourt, a Liberal MP on the party’s left. So, in practice, it’s convention that ensures that election results are upheld and our elected House of Commons chooses who governs our country.

When the election result has been a clear defeat – as with Jim Callaghan in 1979 and John Major in 1997 – prime ministers have resigned not because of the automatic force of law but because of the convention that they should do so. When the election result has been unclear – as with Ted Heath in 1974, Gordon Brown in 2010, and Theresa May in 2017 – the sitting prime minister has carried on in order to see if an alternative coalition, either to maintain their own government or to see if the creation of a new one can be found, though in the cases of both Heath and Brown they were ultimately forced out by arrangements between the other parties.

But what if a prime minister loses their majority not at an election but midway through the parliament, as Jim Callaghan (him again!) did on 31 March 1977, when Labour lost its overall majority after being defeated in a by-election in Birmingham Stechford?

Well, in 1977 the prime minister had three options. He could call a fresh general election in a bid to get a new parliamentary majority. He could tell the monarch that another member of parliament was able to command a majority in the House of Commons. Or he could seek to form a government through an alternative arrangement, as Callaghan did by striking a deal with the Liberal Party to provide the government with a majority.

But if historically a sitting prime minister has lost a confidence vote then it is, or at least was clear: they can either call an election (as Callaghan did in 1979) or recommend that the monarch calls on another politician to form a government.

So in 2019 it’s open and shut, right? If Boris Johnson loses a confidence vote then he has two options: he can tell the monarch to send for another prime minister, or he can seek an election… but that’s where it gets messy.

Why? Because in 2010, parliament passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act into law, which gives control over the date of the next election not to the executive but to the legislature. Now, if the government loses a confidence vote there is a 14-day period in which it has the power to seek a fresh confidence vote, and if it can’t get one, then there is an election.

But what is not wholly clear is whether that 14-day period is a free-for-all, in which, say, Jeremy Corbyn can do a deal with Nicola Sturgeon, Jo Swinson and Tory dissidents to form a cross-party government to seek an Article 50 extension for a fresh government, or one in which only the sitting prime minister can seek to extend their time in office.

Because having been no-confidenced, the government retains its power at the start of the 14 days to ask parliament for dissolution under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act by seeking a two-thirds majority. But equally, if the prime minister has fallen out with one set of coalition partners (in our case the DUP), then they might then seek to form a confidence-and-supply agreement with another group (perhaps the small but significant group of pro-Brexit independent backbenchers). 

In practice, what I think will happen when push comes to shove, is that parliament will, effectively, establish how the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and government formation works in practice when the moment arises. The Downing Street/Cummings argument – or rather, its hope – is that in practice the government still retains the ability to decide how it responds, rather than having the choice made for it.  

Content from our partners
How to tackle the UK's plastic pollution problem – with Coca-Cola
The hard truth about soft skills
Why we need a national employment service

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU