How no-confidence votes work in Britain

Boris Johnson, Britain’s alleged prime minister, survived a vote of no confidence this week, and we could get all mopey about that if we wanted to, but instead let’s take the opportunity to have a good old crawl around the dusty corners of the British political system and see what we can find. Old coins? Abandoned rulebooks? Spiders? 

Nope, sorry. We find the no-confidence vote, in all its convoluted glory.

 

What is the no-confidence vote? 

The one Johnson just survived was an internal party affair, run by the Conservatives, the party with a majority in the House of Commons. That’s because what they’re voting on isn’t just the leader of the country but the leader of their party, and what takes precedence is the party, since–as should be clear to everyone–that’s more important. So it was only Conservative members of parliament who got to vote.

The same was true last time they held a no-confidence vote, back when Theresa May was prime minister. We could go back further, but I’m getting full of cobwebs so let’s head off in another direction. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: a peony

While Conservative MPs cast their votes, the rest of the country got to sit back and wonder how many would vote which way. It’s like catching the clowns crawl out of that tiny car at the circus and wondering how many more there’ll be. Except the clowns are running the country.   

If it strikes you as odd that a single party gets to choose the head of the country, we’re nowhere near the center of the issue yet. The party also gets to set the rules on when and whether there’ll be a vote and how it’ll be run.

Yes, this business of having an unwritten constitution’s a barrel of laughs. I recommend it to any country that feels like the fun’s gone out of politics. 

 

The rules

Under the party’s current rules, if 15% of the Conservative MPs send a letter of no confidence in the prime minister to something called the 1922 Committee, then the committee has to call a vote.

At least I think it has to. What I’ve read goes a little hazy there. Maybe they have to and maybe they don’t but always have. So far, they’ve always called a vote.

The 1922 Committee, by the way, is called that because it was set up in 1923.

We’ll move on before we get upset, okay?

The committee’s an arm of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons and seems to insert its nearly-hundred-year-old hand into every Conservative leadership battle. It meets weekly, gathering up the backbench Conservatives–and by backbench I mean the MPs who don’t hold government positions, the ones down the food chain who aren’t personally in power even when their party is.

So the committee gathers the backbench Tories (Tory means Conservative but takes less time to type) and gives them a forum, allowing them to “air their concerns” and be a pain in the keyhole of Number 10 Downing Street, where the people who really have the power both govern and (since we’re talking about the current bunch), drink, fight, party, and vomit. 

To repeat myself, since I’ve wandered: Once the committee collects the letters from 15% of the Conservative MPs, it calls for a vote. Given the current breakdown of the House, it took 54 letters to trigger a vote. Once that happens, a prime minister then has to win a majority of the Conservative MPs plus one–in the current situation, 180–to stay in office.

The letters can be anonymous or the writers can make them public. They can also withdraw them if a) they decide the timing’s wrong, b) they were threatened thoroughly enough, or c) they were offered a juicy government post. 

Government posts? Johnson had already handed out 173 government jobs, making his MPs everything from members of the Cabinet to junior ministers to dog wranglers to extras who don’t have any lines but do hang around the edges of the scene in costume and then hope they don’t get edited out of the final cut. 

If you happen to hold one of those jobs, you’d think two or three times before voting yourself out of it.

Johnson carried 60% of his MPs–211 votes–which was a smaller-than-expected number according to at least according to one newspaper.

The party’s rules say that, having survived the vote, a prime minister is safe from another challenge for a year.

So is he in the clear? Well, no. The last time the Conservatives held a no-confidence vote, Theresa May was the prime minister and she scraped together a larger proportion of her party than Johnson has, but within eight months she was out on her ass.

How’d that work? Well, the committee threatened to change the rules and allow another vote before the year was up unless she set a date for her resignation. 

Better to jump than be pushed, she figured. Johnson, however, will need to not only be pushed, he’ll need to be wrapped in canvas, tied, and thrown overboard.

But there’s talk that the MPs who voted against Johnson may not wait for that. If they refuse to vote with the government–not necessarily voting against it but abstaining–they’ll deny Johnson hte powerful majority he’s had in Parliament, paralyzing him. Since they represent all the available wings, feet, and claws of the party and refer to themselves as a coalition of chaos, it’s hard to know if they’ll do anything that coordinated.

 

What happens when a prime minister loses a no-confidence vote?

They limp on as prime minister until they’re replaced, because the country has to have a prime minister, however vague and ineffective. Meanwhile, the party that tossed them out selects a new one–according to its own rules.

But that’s if it has a majority. If it doesn’t–say if two parties governed as a coalition–or if the party’s so badly split that it can’t come up with a candidate, it gets messy.

You thought it was already messy? Ha. Shows what you know.

I’ll simplify this, but basically if someone–anyone–can gather enough support for a new candidate, there’s a confidence vote held in 14 days. If they survive that, they’re the prime minister. If not, there’s a general election and all the MPs have to run for their seats again–something they very much don’t want to do unless, of course, they think their party can come back with a big majority, but that’s always a gamble. It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, as Yogi Berra is said to have said.

If no candidate emerges, then somewhere along the way the prime minister has to advise the queen that there’ll be an election, because the queen needs to know stuff like that.

The queen says, “Oh.”

Then everyone involved tears off their clothes and runs around Westminster Palace playing either banjos or tubas and throwing confetti.

Okay, I made some of that up. If you want a full (and sane) explanation of how it works, go look at the BBC’s graphic.

 

How other parties run a no-confidence vote

So far, I’ve only talked about how the Conservative Party holds a no-confidence vote, but since each party sets its own rules, they have no bearing on what other parties do in a similar situation. So let’s take a wider look.

Labour: Okay, this is awkward. I haven’t found a clear explanation of how the Labour Party holds a no-confidence vote. Possibly because it doesn’t really hold them. When Jeremy Corbyn led the party (which was the opposition then, not the government), his fellow MPs held a no-confidence vote but he didn’t resign since the party doesn’t have any rules governing what that meant or what to do about it if it should happen. He argued that his support among the members outweighed his lack of support among MPs. And you know what? Why shouldn’t it? When your party doesn’t have any relevant rules, it doesn’t have any relevant rules.

Liberal Democrats: I couldn’t even find that much for the Lib Dems. 

Other Parties: I gave up, leaving a few parties floating free.

What does it all mean? I haven’t a clue. A party being able to dump its leader, as the Tories can, sounds democratic but in practice it seems to give a lot of power to small groups within the party, such as the extreme Brexiteers. If that’s true, you could argue that the forms of democracy are giving a great deal of power to a minority at the expense of the majority, but I’m raising that as a question rather than offering it as an analysis. 

 

Parliamentary votes of no confidence

It’s also possible for parliament as a whole, not just the majority party, to hold a no-confidence vote, and if the government loses, that would, once upon a time, have triggered a general election. But the rules changed when David Cameron was the prime minister. He introduced a new system called-fixed term parliaments. Since then, nobody has a clue what happens. 

As the House of Commons Library explains it, “The consequences of a government losing what would have been considered a question of confidence before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act have not been tested since the Act was passed.”

In other words, it hasn’t happened since the rules changed. Maybe everyone moves one seat down the table and cries, “No room, no room.” Maybe we go back to the scenario with the confetti and the musical instruments. We’ll all just have to wait and see. 

Remember what I said about how much fun an unwritten constitution is?

 

The important stuff

Can we get to the stuff that really matters now? Sooner or later, Boris Johnson will be carried out of Number 10 kicking and screaming and wrapped in canvas, and the question on everyone’s mind is, What will happen to the wallpaper? 

What wallpaper? The horrible and very expensive wallpaper that Johnson and his wife paid for, but only after they were caught trying to have a major party donor pay for it.

I’m not prone to imagining myself in public office, for oh so many reasons, but I can’t help putting myself into  his successor’s comfortable slippers–you know, the ones she or he puts on after work when he or she tries to turn back into her or his real self if (could we use the plural here, please?) if they still remember who that is.

Where were we? I was putting myself in that person’s slippers and  looking at the wallpaper that Johnson will leave behind (but only because you can’t take it with you). On the one hand, it was ruinously expensive–£840 a roll. You can’t just tear that down, can you? On the other hand, it’s awful. Who could live with it? And what sort of impression does it give other heads of state? You couldn’t have a serious conversation in front of it. I’m not sure you could eat a frozen pizza in front of it either.

I’m not sure what you can do in front of it other than run.

Is the next prime minister going to have to break with tradition and live somewhere else? I wouldn’t rule it out.

By now, of course, you want to see it. You’ll find a couple of photos here, along with a discussion of the money and who’s related to who in what way. It’s all deliciously scandalous and, except for the occasional wallpaper joke, has been pretty much forgotten by now.

The Brexit Update, 4 September 2019

By the time you read this, it’ll be out of date–British politics are moving at the speed of a slow-motion train wreck–but here’s what I can tell you as of 7 a.m., British summer time (which isn’t a season but the time Britain goes by in the summer):

Yesterday, one lone MP resigned from the Conservative Party and joined the Liberal Democrats, and that was enough to lose the Conservatives their majority and make Boris Johnson the leader of a minority government.

That happened not long after Johnson announced that he would boot out (okay, effectively boot out, but let’s not get into that) any Conservative MP who voted against him. Last night, twenty-one of them did. At that point he became the leader of a government with a significantly smaller minority.

What they voted against him on was–damn this is hard to explain sensibly. Normally, the government has the power to set the agenda for the House of Commons, but the Commons can occasionally seize control of the agenda, and that’s what it did. This will allow the Commons to debate a no-deal Brexit today. 

When he lost the vote, Johnson said he’d call for an early election, but he needs the backing of two-thirds of the MPs for that to happen. Since a majority of MPs would be happy to drown him in the Thames, why wouldn’t they support a new election? Because Parliament shuts down for twenty-five days before the election, and Johnson would get to choose the date of the new election. If he chose his timing well, he could lock Parliament in a broom closet, withdraw from the European Union, and hum “Rule Britannia” while they pound on the door and yell, “Let me out!”

So although Labour’s been screaming for an early election, they’re against this one unless a no-deal Brexit is ruled out–which it won’t be. 

There are two ways around the need for a two-thirds majority:

First, the government calls for an election using the words “notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.” Then they’d only need a simple majority.

Can they do that, announce that they’re going to call an election ignoring the law governing elections? Apparently so. Do we know how to have fun over here or what?

But, of course, they don’t have a simple majority either. And proposing an election that way would allow MPs to set the election date, so it would lose Johnson his maneuvering room. And the bill could be amended, so Commons could tack on anti-no-deal wording.

It would also have to pass the House of Lords, so it’s a slower process. 

Second, the government could call a vote of no confidence in itself. 

Yes, seriously. 

If it passed, Johnson would be expected to resign and the Commons would try to agree on a new prime minister, who could ask the EU to delay Brexit. If the Commons couldn’t choose a prime minister in fourteen days (there’s a lot of political arm wrestling, not to mention posturing and an ego or two, involved), that would trigger a new election.

The BBC article that I pulled all that from (it’s the link several paragraphs back) calls that a high-risk strategy for the government. It doesn’t say that the crucial word in all this is expected, as in Johnson would be expected to resign, but it’s not entirely clear that he would, or whether he’d have to. The law’s fairly new and contains a lot of unknowns.

But back to the Commons seizing control of its agenda. If an anti-no-deal bill passes the Commons, which it probably will, the next hurdle is shoving it through the House of Lords, where it will, inevitably, be filibustered and amended. There’s an attempt in the works to set a time limit on debate. We’ll see how that goes.

The Scottish National Party is saying that a fall election would be a great opportunity for Scotland to demand a second vote on independence.

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That’s the headline stuff. In smaller print:

  • Scotland’s chief prosecutor has said he wants to intervene in two legal challenges to Johnson’s suspension of Parliament, saying that proroguing Parliament is it’s an abuse of power.
  • Speaking of abuses of power, Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings–the power, and possibly the brains, behind the throne–fired another special adviser, Sonia Khan, calling armed police to have her marched out of 10 Downing Street. He accused her of being the source of a leak–something she denies. The interesting thing here is that she didn’t work for him. She also didn’t work for Cummings’ boss, she worked for the chancellor, Sajid Javid. And Johnson wasn’t consulted about the firing. Read a few articles and you’ll find phrases like “mafia-style” and “reign of terror.” There are calls for an investigation into the firing.  
  • The government’s set aside £100 million for an information campaign to prepare people for Brexit, even though there are, apparently, questions about whether the government can manage to spend that much in two months. What do they want people to learn for all that money? That we should consult the government’s Brexit website, where they offer some fairly mild advice about travel, business, citizenship, and so forth. With apologies, I relied on a summary for that, not the website itself. The website wants to walk you through only what you need to know, and I bailed out at the point where it asked whether I’m a citizen. I am, but y’know, I just might want to know what happens to people who aren’t. But it’s all okay because the government has placed an order for mugs and T-shirts, so I feel better about it all.