What The Conservative-DUP Agreement Says about Votes of Confidence Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act

Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Union Party, and Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party

The Conservative and Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party have finally hammered out a supply agreement that would give May’s minority government a parliamentary majority.

You can read it here: Confidence and Supply Agreement between the Conservative Party and the DUP.

The wording of the title — “Agreement between the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party on Support for the Government in Parliament” — and the second paragraph allude to the inner workings of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which has cast aside the standard confidence convention as it existed in the United Kingdom prior to its enactment in 2011 and as it still exists here in Canada, and replaced it with one codified set of rules. The second paragraph contains the crux of the agreement:

“The DUP agrees to support the Government on all motions of confidence; and on the Queen’s Speech; the budget; finance bills; supply and appropriations legislation and Estimates.” 

In the Westminster Parliament, the House of Commons can only withdraw its confidence from the Ministry by sustaining a motion, with a 50%+1 simple majority, “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.” In other words, votes on the Address in Reply to the Queen’s Speech and on supply bills no longer act as votes of confidence per se. So the Commons could still vote against the Queen’s Speech or a budget, but that vote alone would no longer amount to an automatic withdrawal of confidence in the Ministry, as it would in most Canadian legislatures (apart from those of Northwest Territories and Nunavut), and the Ministry would not be absolutely obliged to resign unless it lost a vote on the motion “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.” Yet, in a practical sense, the Prime Minister might choose to resign anyway — which would only expose the redundancy and stupidity of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. This is how the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act has tampered with and ruined the confidence convention and turned something eminently practical — and very British — into something absurd, codified, and officious — dare I say, into something very Continental European.  (I outline the absurdity of how British governments now lose and regain confidence in more detail in this entry, “The Cabinet Manual and Votes of Confidence Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act“).

It is reasonable to presume that this document would have been vetted by Crown lawyers in the Cabinet Office who understand the implications of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. In my view, this explains why the agreement separates “all motions of confidence” from the other categories of legislation which used to be automatic and de facto votes of confidence. It opts for, specifically, “motions of confidence” — not the more common phrasing “matters of confidence.” Why? Because under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act,  the only automatic matter of confidence is an explicit motion of confidence. Futhermore, taking into account the FTPA also explains the title of the document. We used to refer to this general arrangement, whereby one minor party agrees to support another larger party in government but without becoming part of the Ministry itself, a “supply agreement”; but this document is presented instead as “an agreement […] on support for the government in parliament.”

In the 2017 election, the Conservative and Unionist Party stated in its manifesto that the May government would table legislation to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. I hope that it still could do so in this parliament, because it has brought only confusion and officiousness and not the clarity and certainty that its proponents touted.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Confidence Convention, Fixed-Date Elections, Formation of Governments. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What The Conservative-DUP Agreement Says about Votes of Confidence Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act

  1. Peter Hurley says:

    Following up on Mark Roth’s comment,

    What does happen if a budget fails under the FTPA? I suppose the Queen could appoint a new (Labour?) ministry and hope that they’d pass a budget? But if not, what then? Could there be an idiotic US-style government shutdown? Would funding just perpetuate indefinitely at prior levels? I suppose the chaos would be likely to politically force a vote for early dissolution under the FTPA.


  2. Mark Roth says:

    I almost have to wonder if both parties, and possibly Whitehall, simply do not know what the FTPA really means for parliamentary government.* In that light, their agreement reads like a hedged bet: the DUP supports the government on anything that is or could be a matter of confidence or supply as long as the governmemnt lives up to its end of the deal.

    * Or, in other words, no one is quite sure what should or will happen if a budget fails or the Queen’s Speech is voted down: Nothing? A presumptive requirement to resign? More yelling than usual during PMQs? A constitutional crisis? A rising in the North?


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