What will cause the government in the UK to fall?
October 14, 2022 2:13 PM   Subscribe

Okay, so I know that the Fixed Term Parliament Act has been repealed, but what I don't understand is what will cause a new general election to be called, rather than Liz Truss just being replaced with another Tory, the way she replaced BoJo. Please explain to me the state of play, or point me to some good explainers about the current moment and its politics.

I have a vague recollection from back when I was in college that being unable to pass a budget automatically causes a UK Parliament to fall? But my recollection is hazy enough that I might be hallucinating that, or it might relate to 17th century France or something. Is that still the case? Does it only count for the main budget but not whatever this mini budget was?
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Law & Government (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
See confidence motions, which are a common feature of Westminster-style parliaments (it's a similar dealio here in Canada).
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:51 PM on October 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

Essentially the government is in a state of panic and paralysis, and there are no good options.

As things stand, they're stuck with Truss until the next election unless the 1922 committee changes its rules (again) to allow another leadership election, or unless a general election is called. There's a strong feeling among Conservative MPs that both would be pretty terrible options. The last leadership contest was criticised because it effectively put government on hold at a time of intense pressure to sort out the economy, NHS, and the cost-of-living crisis. They could call an early general election, but the polls show the Conservatives being annihilated for the foreseeable future given recent polling (they could conceivably end up with no MPs at all, and basically cease to exist). While Tory MPs mostly believe that the current situation is untenable, they're unlikely to favour an election because most of them would lose their jobs, and their party could be out of power for a decade or more.

A vote of confidence in the government would only succeed if a substantial number of Tory MPs voted against their own interests, effectively admitting that the game is up.
posted by pipeski at 2:56 PM on October 14, 2022 [5 favorites]

A vote of confidence or no confidence in the government in parliament is one way; since the Conservatives have a majority, this would require a backbench rebellion among their ranks, where sufficient Con MPs vote against a Con government. It usually leads to an election, though I think technically they have 14 days to form a new government (eg a suitable PM and potentially some highlighted cabinet picks they would make) that can subsequently pass a confidence vote. I would imagine it's quite likely that failing to pass the budget would lead to a confidence motion, or perhaps that the leadership would turn the budget into a confidence motion to get their MPs to vote the party line. Apparently the budget is not special in and of itself - it's not automatically also a confidence motion, at least from what I can find on the web (and I thought it was, the same as you).

Now, looking at the budget specifically, if the coming budget is as egregiously terrible as the mini budget was, it leaves Conservative MPs with the difficult question of supporting it and being held accountable later, or refusing to support it and going to the polls at a time when they're probably going to lose their jobs based on opinion polling. (It's a safe bet that all opposition parties would vote against.)

A second is that the PM of the time decides to call an election. This would, again, be a terrible time for that based on polling numbers. It is 'the downfall of the government' in a sense but it's more that they fell on their swords.

Third, which doesn't really fit your definition of government but I've included it for completeness, is if the leadership of the Conservative Party is challenged, which is an internal procedure via a committee of sitting MPs called the 1922 committee. The Wikipedia page will have the details, but that's a two stage system: first MPs must write in to request a vote, and second the current PM must lose the vote. This changes the PM and cabinet - potentially - but leaves the Conservative Party in power. In US terms, this changes the executive while leaving the legislature intact; in the UK, the executive (PM and cabinet) serve at the pleasure of the legislature (parliament, or more specifically the House of Commons). She could also resign of her own free will, but that doesn't seem likely.

(I will add: I anticipate someone calling me out on a detail or two, but this is my understanding.)
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 2:58 PM on October 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

From Wikipedia, Confidence motions in the United Kingdom. Note there are motions of confidence and motions of no confidence.

IIUC, I don't think there are specific rules in the UK about elections if the Government can't pass a budget. This is called "Loss of Supply". Failure to pass a budget would normally lead to the Government calling a vote of confidence in itself, or proceeding directly to calling an election, but I think this is by convention.
posted by caek at 3:18 PM on October 14, 2022

One thing worth bearing in mind is that, for all the fury and commentary, there is no part of the electorate that actually votes on the Prime Minister. The role of PM is best described as "the person who can command the support of the majority of the House of Commons." Practically that means the leader of the largest party. And if that party gets another leader, they're likely able to command the majority.
All the talk about 'we've changed leader, we must have a general election' sounds right, but there's nothing that mandates it. Yet the realpolitik of the situation suggests that you could just about get away with replacing the leader at the last General Election... but going for a second replacement? Then the distance between public and parliament procedure gets wider. Wide enough to break? I'm not sure...
posted by ewan at 4:57 PM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

It usually leads to an election, though I think technically they have 14 days to form a new government (eg a suitable PM and potentially some highlighted cabinet picks they would make) that can subsequently pass a confidence vote.
This is no longer the case since the Fixed Term Parliament Act was repealed. Now it’s back to the pre-2011 conventions: the loss of a confidence vote requires the government to resign (which in practice means the prime minister advises the monarch to dissolve Parliament and call a general election).
posted by kyten at 5:11 PM on October 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Well, technically the King can still just dissolve parliament of his own accord. It would be the mother of all constitutional crises, but frankly at this point an awful lot of people would be willing to let that slide if it stops this clown show.

Charles has always been known to be a meddler, after all, and the fear has always been that he wouldn't show his mother's restraint and be able to resist excercising his theoretical powers as King.

Hilariously, Charles dissolving parliament was a plot point of the 2014 mock-Shakespearean play Charles III, which at that time seemed like a hilarious parody-comedy about the future, but actually failed to envisage quite how crazy things were about to get, and was quite prophetic in some other regards.

Anyway no, we'll just somehow get an even worse Tory PM, but it's fun to think about.
posted by automatronic at 5:39 PM on October 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

The only thing that would trigger a general election is if the Prime Minister went to the King and requested a dissolution of parliament.

That could happen: e.g. Truss or her successor might call a snap election as Heath did in 1974, saying to the country in effect: 'back me or sack me'. But it's unlikely to happen as long as the Conservatives hold an 80-seat parliamentary majority. Any sensible PM is going to want to work with that majority, rather than gamble on an election.

Remember the John Major government? Major crashed the economy in 1992 and never recovered. Yet despite a steadily diminishing parliamentary majority, he hung on as PM for another five years -- five years -- before finally being kicked out of office at the 1997 general election. Moral: the only thing that can trigger an election is if the PM decides to call one.

Against that, it could be argued that we're now in a media-driven age where it's much harder than it was in 1992 for a PM to remain in office without public credibility. If Truss tries to carry on despite her abysmal polling ratings, or if the party ditches her and picks another leader, the public outcry could be so loud that basically there's no alternative to a general election.

That is possible. But I stand by my view that an election is unlikely. If Truss or her successor called an election now, or in the next few months, it would look like an admission of failure: an admission that despite an 80-seat majority, the party was unable to govern. No PM is going to want to do that. It would be political suicide.

Some commentators have argued that we now effectively have a hung parliament, in the sense that the PM can't be sure of getting her agenda through parliament. True, and that might force the Conservatives to elect another leader. But it wouldn't force a general election unless a substantial number of Conservative MPs voted with Labour on a confidence motion.

As for Charles taking the initiative in dissolving parliament, that's not going to happen. But if we're playing with unlikely scenarios: it's conceivable that the Tories could try to avoid another leadership election by asking the King to use his prerogative to appoint a new PM, as his mother did in 1963 when she sent for Douglas-Home to succeed Macmillan. Unlikely, but theoretically possible.
posted by verstegan at 8:34 PM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

The next official general election is not until 2024. By that time Scotland may no longer be part of the UK either following a potential referendum scheduled October 2023 or via the use of a general election as a de facto independence vote. The details of which of those options may apply are being considered by the UK Supreme Court following a case this week.
posted by rongorongo at 1:28 AM on October 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

Occasionally there is an AskMe question where somebody provides a massive list of terrible things about their current job - adds something like “but I really need the money” - and then asks us to determine whether they should stay or go. For each Conservative MP, I imagine they are in this situation. They are, I imagine, exhausted and depressed after 12 years in power and a string of progressively awful leaders. There is an enormous gulf between the optimism with which they could have been elected (even for the post Brexit 2019 election), and where they are now. If they vote for a general election they are mostly going to be out of a job as politicians - but the party could actually retain a shred of credibility by going “we’re done, you guys have a go now”- which would clearly be the best option for the country also- and they would be freed from their current humiliation. I would not entirely discount that this might happen at this stage. Ex MPs, even awful ones, do have a range of alternative employment options.
posted by rongorongo at 1:43 AM on October 15, 2022 [6 favorites]

I read something this morning suggesting that there are a bunch of Tory MPs wondering whether to just quit - and so cause by-elections for their positions, which the Tories may lose, thus reducing their majority - because when the Tories lost the 1997 election, nobody wanted to hire an ex-Tory MP. So if they act selfishly now, at the expense of the party, they have a better chance of getting a good job, rather than wait to lose their seat at a general election.

In case we were looking for ways in which the Tories would be more likely to lose a confidence vote.
posted by fabius at 5:27 AM on October 15, 2022 [3 favorites]

There won't be a new election. The Tories will carry on for their full term, unless their poll numbers recover. There isn't an easy way for Truss to be tossed now, but if enough Tory grandees decide she has to go, she'll go.
posted by MattD at 10:32 AM on October 15, 2022

A Twitter thread by MeFi's own garius:
So it's worth talking about why numbers like this put Truss at a GREATER risk of her MPs backing a Labour move for a general election, not less.

It's about personal survival.
Basically his theory is that if you're a Tory in a safe-ish seat who wants to be reelected, but whose seat is looking less and less safe the deeper Truss digs herself in, you want a general election *sooner* and you want to campaign on your individual Conservative conscience distancing you from Truss. So even if it screws over your colleagues, you may want to go ahead and pull out the straw that collapses the house while there's a chance you'll still be around to rebuild.
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:38 PM on October 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

Machiavellian "Churchill 1940"solution put forward by Phil Moorhouse: leaves Truss as Leader of the Party while MPs [Tory Grandees] agree on a new PM to be called to the palace.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:58 PM on October 15, 2022

Here's part of how it might happen.

Labour want to ban hydraulic fracking for shale gas in England. A lot of Tory MPs would normally back that, and are in rural constituencies where it's an issue their local voters care about.

Today in the Commons is an opposition day, so Labour control the agenda, which you can see in today's order paper. They have a motion this afternoon that calls on the government to ban fracking. But the text of that motion includes a lengthy small print which effectively puts Labour back in control of the business of the House.

So it's in effect, a confidence vote. And various journalists today have gotten their hands on this message from the Tory chief whip to their MPs, warning them that it's going to be a three line whip, i.e. if they don't vote with the government, they're kicked out of the Tory party.

So now a bunch of Tory MPs who are faced with a rock and a hard place. Vote with the government, and Labour immediately post leaflets through every door in their constituency saying that they voted in favour of fracking. Or rebel and they're kicked out; they'll keep their seats in Parliament, but have little influence, no government role and no chance of remaining an MP at the next election - unless a future leader invites them back.

The leadership is gambling that they won't rebel. "Big test", as one of them put it.

And Labour can keep doing this on other issues whenever it gets the chance.
posted by automatronic at 4:58 AM on October 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

And AskMe is not the place for live updates, but wow I was right. 40 rebels - half the majority - and absolute scenes.
posted by automatronic at 3:01 PM on October 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

« Older Recommendations for psychotherapy office panic...   |   How was the Golden Gate Bridge built? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments