How to remove a Prime Minister – is it simply a question of confidence?
Whether you are a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’, you simply cannot ignore the latest headlines making the rounds as resignation letters pile in thick and fast over the disagreements by the current Government on Brexit.
This brief article hopes to expel the myths about what a no vote of confidence means and as lawyers explain what the legality / process of removing a Prime Minister really is?
No vote of Confidence?
A no vote of confidence is simply that, it is a motion (usually by the opposition e.g. the Labour Party in this instance) of whether the House of Commons has no confidence in the Government. If such a motion is won by a simple majority, the incumbent Government is ousted from its position and a new government (with the support of the majority of MPs) must be formed within 14-days.
Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, failure to form a new Government within this 14-day deadline will result in Parliament being dissolved and an early General Election called.
Whilst the above appears straight forward and the process relatively simple, this is different to the actual no vote of confidence being described across the media today.
Is this what is happening?
The no vote of confidence described by the News outlets is solely in relation to Theresa May and her ability to continue as a Prime Minister in the eyes of her own political party, the Conservative Party.
A vote of no confidence in this context will result only in a change of leadership, rather than a change of Government (as described above). This process is therefore not founded on legislation and can be described as purely political and solely internal to the Conservative Party. It is a process which is dictated by the largely unknown group, the ‘1922 Committee’.
Who is the 1922 Committee?
The 1922 Committee is a forum by which all backbench members (e.g. MPs) of the Conservative Party are automatic members, with the exclusion of all Ministers of Government (including the Prime Minister). Unlike the Parliamentary Labour Party, they meet behind closed doors and the discussions that do take place are kept private and out of the public eye. Unsurprisingly this has led to their reputation of secrecy and mystery. Their members on the other hand state that a level of privacy is needed to have the freedom to speak honestly and frankly without reprisals.
The Committee was set up in 1923 (unlike the name would have you believe) by a group of MPs following the 1922 election. Their primary function is to act as a sounding board of Conservative opinion for their Leadership to listen. However, this political forum is not without teeth, they hold the power of disposing their Leader. All that is required to do so, is 15% of its members to formally request a vote of no confidence (currently 48 letters are needed).
Once 15% of requests have been received by the Chairman of the Committee, a formal vote of no confidence will be arranged. If that vote is consequently lost by the leadership, then the leader (Theresa May) must resign, and it becomes the chairman’s next responsibility to organise and hold elections for the next leadership contest. It is this potential to remove a leader which gives the committee it’s real power.
Has this type of no vote of confidence happened before?
Yes, the committee is most famous for disposition of Austen Chamber as Prime Minister and for causing the downfall of the Liberal Coalition of 1922. The 1922 Committee’s most recent casualty was that of Ian Duncan Smith, as leader of the Conservatives back in 2003.
Whilst there have been casualties in the past, statistically such votes of no confidence triggered by the 1922 Committee remains a very rare occurrence.
What does this mean for the Prime Minister, Theresa May?
Well if you believe the headlines, Theresa May’s fate as Prime Minister rests on 48 of her own MPs, in whether they intend to trigger a vote of no confidence on remaining as their Leader.
For the incumbent Prime Minister, it appears simply a question of whether she commands the confidence of her MPs. This is a strange occurrence, as she will know that for once her job isn’t in the hands of her political opposition or the wider public, but with her own colleagues.
In this sense it’s akin to a coup of leadership rather than a toppling of government.
Should the 48 rebellious MPs secure her resignation, it is important to note that any future successor will be determined by the Conservative Party, so whether the public like it or not, they may soon a new Prime Minister at Downing Street.
By Dean Garrett.