Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
What are votes of no confidence?


What are votes of no confidence?

A vote on whether the parliament has no confidence in Humza Yousaf’s first minister-ship is certain, with Tory leader Douglas Ross’s motion having now gained the support of more than the requisite 25 MSPs.

And now Labour’s Anas Sarwar has confirmed he will lodge a motion of no-confidence on the whole Scottish Government.

It comes on the day after Yousaf ended his party’s deal with the Scottish Greens, known as the Bute House Agreement.

In doing so, the first minister lost a majority in parliament.

And while he said he intends to continue in government ruling as a minority administration, the opposition parties have other ideas.

So what exactly is a motion of no confidence?

Any MSP may bring forward a motion stating that the Scottish Government as a whole or a specific member of government no longer has the confidence of the parliament.

This is known as a motion of no confidence.

In order to trigger a vote, that motion must be supported by at least 25 MSPs, at which point it will be included in a proposed business programme. This has now happened.

When could that vote be?

The standing orders of the parliament says that “members shall normally be given at least two siting days’ notice of a motion of no confidence”.

MSPs could be notified on the next sitting day – Tuesday next week – meaning a vote could be Thursday.

However, the standing orders also make clear: “Exceptionally, members may be given a shorter period of notice if in the opinion of the parliamentary bureau a shorter period is appropriate”.

There a some suggestions the vote could happen on Wednesday.

Will Humza Yousaf win or lose?

Now in a minority government, SNP votes alone won’t be enough to save him.

There are 63 SNP MSPs in parliament, but 65 opposition MSPs (not including the presiding officer).

Tory, Labour and Lib Dem MSPs total 57. The Greens – who confirmed last night they would support it – take that number to 64.

That puts all eyes on sole Alba MSP, Ash Regan. Her vote will be crucial. Knowing this, she has sent a letter to Yousaf setting out her demands.

If Regan backs her former party, Yousaf will survive the vote of no-confidence. If she sides with the rest of the opposition, Yousaf loses the confidence of the parliament.

In the event of a tie, the presiding officer – former Green MSP Alison Johnstone – casts the deciding vote. By convention, she backs the status quo. In other words, she would vote against the motion.

Either way, the margins will be very tight.

It is perhaps also worth noting that Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s report on disgraced former health secretary Michael Matheson is due soon. If he were to be suspended from parliament for a short time, that could see him unable to vote.

What happens if he wins?

If Yousaf does manage to see off the no-confidence motion, he and his government will proceed as a minority administration.

That means he will need to get the support of opposition MSPs for any piece of legislation to be passed, including the budget.

He made clear at his press conference that he hopes to continue to be able to cooperate with the Greens on such matters – just through a less formal arrangement than the BHA – or failing that would look to the other parties.

Minority government is not new for the SNP – in previous sessions of the parliament, the party has for example passed budgets with the support of the Greens, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems (well, two of them in 2021).

And if he loses?

Technically, Yousaf doesn’t have to do anything at all. Following a vote of no-confidence in a first minister, it is up to that individual first minster how they respond to the will of the parliament.

But it is inconceivable that he could ignore such a vote.

That brings into play two possibilities – Yousaf may back an early election (this would require parliamentary legislation as the first minister does not have to power to simply call one, unlike the prime minister) or he could quit as SNP leader.

If he chooses the latter, there remains a question of how an SNP minority government could proceed even with a new MSP at the helm as they’d need to be voted in by parliament as the first minister.

Has a first minister ever faced a vote of no confidence before?

Yes. Nicola Sturgeon survived such a vote in March 2021.

The Conservatives tabled that motion following the publication of the harassment committee’s report into the government's handling of its investigation into complaints against Alex Salmond. Five of the inquiry’s nine members claimed the first minster had misled parliament and ignored legal advice.

But it was comfortably defeated when Labour, most of the Lib Dems and independent MSP Andy Wightman abstained.

Can’t MSPs vote to overthrow a government?

They can. Government ministers, including the first minister, are required to resign if the parliament backs a motion of no-confidence in the whole government.

On Friday morning, Labour’s Anas Sarwar confirmed he will lodge such a motion.

It is not yet clear which way the other opposition parties will vote on this.

But if the SNP government was to lose the confidence of the parliament, that starts a timer on the formation of a new government. MSPs will have 28 days to elect a new first minister. That can be an MSP from any party who can get the votes.

If no new first minister is elected after that 28 days, the Scottish Parliament is dissolved. That means an election.

But there is a long way to go until we reach that point and nothing is certain.

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Louise Wilson - John Swinney: Voting SNP will ‘intensify pressure’ to hold independence referendum.

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top