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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
22 June 2022
Votes of Confidence: In Context

Votes of Confidence: In Context

Why was there a vote of confidence?

The 1922 Committee, chaired by Sir Graham Brady, had been collecting letters declaring no confidence in Boris Johnson’s leadership from his own Conservative MPs. The committee, which meets regularly to discuss the opinion of Conservative backbenchers, was only able to enact a confidence vote in Johnson once it had received letters from 15 per cent of Conservative MPs, in this case 54. 

On 6 June, Brady revealed the threshold had been met and that a vote of confidence was to be held that day on the future of the Prime Minister. 

Although the letters are submitted in private, there were MPs that publicly voiced their lack of support for Johnson, citing his role in partygate, the new Rwandan asylum plan and the breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol as their reasoning.

How does a vote of confidence work?

In a secret ballot held in a parliamentary committee room, MPs vote one of two ways: confidence in the PM or no confidence in the PM. To remain in his position, Johnson needed over 50 per cent of the vote. Votes are counted as soon as possible, with the result being declared soon afterwards. Due to the suddenness of the vote and the London Tube strikes, MPs were permitted to vote by proxy. 

What is the role of the whips?

The day before the vote of confidence was confirmed by Brady, there were reports that No 10’s whips were using “horrific” threats to dissuade members from submitting letters to the 1922 Committee. Anonymous MPs spoke of blackmail tactics being used by the whips to limit the damage to Johnson’s leadership.

Once the whips had failed to prevent the threshold number of letters from being met, they had to try to persuade people to vote for the PM. While this went on, the opposition’s whips got to work. They employed tactics to undermine the government.

What does the result mean for Johnson?

It was far from a shock that the Prime Minister won the vote, but the margin of victory was far slimmer than he would have hoped for, only winning by 59 per cent.

Johnson called it “an opportunity to put behind us all the stuff that the media goes on about”, while similarly one of his biggest supporters, Jacob Rees-Mogg said that “it was a good victory for the Prime Minister, he won comfortably and now he’s getting on with business”.

However, in 2018 when Theresea May won her vote of confidence by 63 per cent, Rees-Mogg called it a “terrible result for the Prime Minister” and called on her to step down as leader of the party. May resigned six months later. 

On 23 June, the Prime Minister’s influence could take another hit when Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton hold their by-elections. Although under current party rules Johnson cannot face another vote of confidence for the next 12 months, the end of June will be a crucial point in his tenure.

So, what’s a motion of no confidence?

The above describes the process for an internal vote of confidence, only voted on by party members, but there is also a mechanism for the official opposition to remove the government: a motion of no confidence. The vote involves every member of parliament. Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion against Theresa May’s government in January 2019, hoping to trigger a general election. May narrowly won with 51 per cent.

It is also possible to focus on one particular policy or minister by lodging a censure motion. The SNP lodged one of these against the PM back in November, but he comfortably saw that off.
In the Scottish Parliament, the term “motion of no confidence” is used to cover both votes on individual ministers and the government as a whole. Since 1999, there have been six votes about ministers but never one for the entire government. 

The highest profile of these came in 2020 and 2021. Nicola Sturgeon faced the vote last year after a committee report said she had misled parliament about meetings with Alex Salmond. John Swinney faced the vote in August 2020 and March 2021 for mismanagement of SQA’s grading system following the cancellation of exams and for the Scottish Government’s continued failure to publish legal advice on its prospects of success in Salmond’s judicial review case. 

What was said about it?

“For you to prolong this charade by remaining in office not only insults the electorate, and tens of thousands of people who support, volunteer, represent and campaign for our party; it makes a decisive change of government at the next election much more likely.”

Jesse Norman MP

“The only fair conclusion to draw from the Sue Gray Report is that you have breached a fundamental principle of Ministerial Code – a clear resigning matter.”

John Penrose MP, recently resigned as the Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion

“Having listened closely to people in Moray who re-elected me to represent them, and from many people across Scotland, I cannot in good faith support Boris Johnson.”

Douglas Ross MP MSP

“A good victory for the prime minister – he won comfortably – and now he is getting on with business”.

Jacob Rees-Mogg MP

“It is time to draw a line, move forward and focus on what people want us to be talking about - housing, childcare and delivering on lower taxes.”

Liz Truss MP

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