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Politics: Could Labour Walk into Government Without Being Elected?

Usually one tries to keep articles like this relatively short, and yet also with enough detail to avoid skipping over things too much or missing out something important. Sometimes however, it might not be quite so simple and one example is what could be coming our way over the next couple of months. Assuming therefore you don’t expire through boredom and read until the end it if, far be it for me to predict gloom and doom, especially since one person’s gloom is another’s brightness, here may be something to consider. There is the possibility that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour could find themselves running the country without having been elected.

I am not an expert in these matters I have to confess, so to write this article has meant staying up late into the night and looking things up because the idea that the UK could have an un-elected government sounds a little implausible but it is nonetheless possible.

That this should be so is an insult to every single person lawfully living in the United Kingdom and either entitled to vote now or who will be when they reach the right age to do so. It also exposes the flimsy shallowness of David Cameron and his time as leader of the Conservatives and subsequently Prime Minister.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA), brought in by Cameron’s coalition with the Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg, removed the ability of Prime Ministers to call early general elections and handed that power to Parliament. Cameron and Clegg came up with the FTPA to look cool and funky; to stop Prime Minsters from cutting and running if things looked dodgy for them in the House of Commons, a tactic that has been used numerous times in the past and often criticised. They also did it to stop governments calling an election when things were rosy and it would be a near-certainty that they would win. This tactic has also been used in the past and once again, has been criticised because it gives a government some extra time in office without a serious election – in other words, party A wins, does well, and after three years (with two to go) with the opposition in disarray, calls an election and wins easily again. They get another five years, making seven in power (or even more if they time it right) before they have to think seriously about re-election if the other side has sorted itself out. It has happened.

The Act was intended to compel a government to stay in office for a full term – five years but it has a get-out clause.

The FTPA gives now gives parliament two options: the first is a motion supported by two-thirds of MPs that an early election should take place. This early election mechanism was used in 2017 by Theresa May, on a motion put down by her government and supported by the opposition. May did so because she thought she would win handsomely; the polls said she would and she seemed (at the time) to be more popular, by a distance, than Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. Corbyn supported it because he thought he would win, and he nearly did. The election campaign was abysmally run by the Tories and Corbyn was able to realise some potential as a communicator. The result was a hung parliament, even though the Conservatives had 56 more MPs than Labour.

The second method is a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government, in the precise wording set out in s. 2(4) of the Act, carried by a simple majority, which is followed by a 14-day period in which the Commons can install a new government (or re-install the previous government) by a precisely worded new motion, this time of confidence.

The no-confidence method has not yet been used but it might well be on its way within a fairly short period of time.

Up to the creation of the FTPA, if a government had been on the end of a no-confidence vote, convention had it that the government would resign and a general election called. The risk to the opposition (who would be the ones calling for a no confidence vote) is that they would lose again and the government returned to power, that risk of course including an increased majority for the re-elected government in the House of Commons. Such a result would make the opposition look rather silly.

At this point things get a little more complicated so I hope I have got this right (although I make no promises) but if I have, it does present a very worrying possibility for democracy in the UK.

An obvious means by which an incoming government with a very slim majority – or no majority - in the House of Commons could be defeated is on the Queen’s Speech. The Queen’s Speech is the one where Her Majesty reads what the incoming Government wants to do and it has always been something of a formality in that it is voted through the House of Commons with little or no opposition. Opposition parties have tended to focus on defeating the government on specific aspects, particular policies, rather than trying to throw the Government out before it has even begun. Defeat for the government over the Queen’s Speech would invariably mean another general election and if the opposition lose yet once more, there would be nothing gained. They would still look odd. But losing The Queen’s Speech has happened.

To govern effectively in the UK, the prime minister needs to command a majority in the House of Commons. Convention dictates that following a general election, the leader of the largest party is ‘invited’ by the reigning monarch to form a government. To demonstrate that the new government is legitimate, the Queen presents its programme to parliament in the Queen’s Speech, which must be put to a vote in the commons and which the government must win. There have however, been three occasions in modern parliamentary history when a government failed to secure a majority vote on the speech.

The first instance was in January 1886. In June 1885, the Liberal government lost a vote on the budget and the prime minister, William Gladstone, resigned. A general election could not be held immediately because a law governing the redistribution of parliamentary seats had yet to be fully implemented. The Marquess of Salisbury, Conservative leader in the Lords, formed a minority government until a general election was held in December. The result was Liberals 319, Conservatives 237 and the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) 86 – a hung parliament. The IPP supported Irish home rule, a form of devolved government similar to the current devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and now had the balance of power. The Conservatives had flirted with the IPP during 1885 and many Irish home rule MPs shared Conservative ideological sympathies. As it was not inevitable that the home rulers would oppose a Conservative Queen’s speech and Salisbury was the holder of Prime Ministerial office, he was invited to form a government. However, in the closing days of the general election, Gladstone signalled his support for Irish home rule. The Liberals and the IPP passed an amendment to the monarch’s speech and Salisbury’s government fell. Gladstone then formed a government with the IPP, effectively entering into a 'confidence and supply' agreement on the condition he placed an Irish Home Rule Bill before the Commons. This he did in April 1886. But it provoked a Liberal split and parliament was dissolved. The Conservatives comfortably won the general election that followed.

The second occasion when a new government lost the vote on the Queen’s speech occurred a few years later after the general election of 1892. The result was: Conservatives and the Liberal Unionist 315, Liberals 272 and the Irish Home Rulers 81. The Irish had the balance of power and once again Gladstone’s support for Irish home rule ensured they supported a Liberal 'no confidence' amendment to the new government’s Queen’s speech which Salisbury had put forward. Gladstone then formed a government and passed a second Home Rule Bill in the Commons – though it was defeated in the Lords.

The third occasion was in 1923. The creation of the Irish Free State in 1921 had removed the Irish home rule MPs from the Commons and near-universal suffrage after 1918 made the Labour party the second party in the Commons. However, as the result of the general election in December 1923 demonstrated, the new circumstances did not immediately translate into a two-party system: Conservatives 258, Labour 191 and the Liberal party 158. Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin had fought the campaign on tariff reform, anathema to liberal free trade principles, and the Liberals and Labour combined to defeat what was now the King’s speech in early 1924 (Queen Victoria had reigned from 1837 until 1901, with King George V coming to the throne in 1910 and remaining there until 1936). Labour formed a minority government with Liberal support, which governed successfully in 1924 for nine months with Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald as prime minister. However, the Liberal party came to think that the Labour government was unduly influenced by the communist left and it supported a vote of no confidence on October 8 that year. This inevitably led to a general election. The Conservatives won a substantial majority and the Liberals were reduced to just 40 seats, from which they’ve never really recovered.

Returning to the role of the Monarch, one of the little-known aspects to the duties and responsibilities of the Queen is that she has what are known as ‘reserve powers’ and these include the power to dismiss a government. Let’s provide a purely hypothetical example using the present situation. Let’s say Boris Johnson wins enough Tory member’s votes to become Prime Minister. Let’s further say that no attempt is made to bring him down immediately and he gets his chance to be Prime Minster at least until the end of October. If things have been as generally chaotic as a Johnson Premiership are predicted to be by his detractors and Brexit does not happen, Prime Minister Johnson will obviously be up the creek and deeply mired in the brown stuff. In that event, with the Tories not having a majority (especially if a number of his own MPs are against the PM) the country would, in effect, be ungovernable. The Tories however, would still not call a general election - they have said so. Neither would they countenance a second EU referendum. They have said this too.

The problem undoubtedly is that Her Majesty would take some convincing that she should use her reserve power where doing so could lead to an impasse, with no one else being able to win the confidence of the House but no general election being possible before it is next due under the FTPA.

There is however, the mechanism of moving humble addresses. A motion could be moved on an opposition or back-bench day in this form:

‘That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to dismiss her current ministers and to appoint X as Prime Minister’.

If such a motion passed, the monarch could be relatively sure not only that the current government had lost the confidence of the House but also that a specific person – Jeremy Corbyn – did now command that confidence. Corbyn would be able to do so because not only would he have his own MPs on his side since they would all presumably prefer to be sitting on the government side of the house, but he would also have the declared support of a number of Tory MPs. These are people like Dominic Grieve, Tobias Ellwood and Kenneth Clarke. All three have publicly said that they would seek to bring down a Conservative government over Brexit. The same applies to those MPs who have left their former parties like Anna Soubry and Mike Gapes. There are of course, others.

As I wrote earlier, one also has to remember that with a hung parliament, the party leader with the most MPs (currently the Tories) have the right to ask the Queen for her consent to them forming a government. If they then find they cannot do so, Her Majesty can then invite the leader of the party with the next largest number of MPs – Jeremy Corbyn – to have a go instead.

Either way, if the Tories do fall, it is quite possible that Jeremy Corbyn moves into Number 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister and John McDonnell into Number 11 as Chancellor.

And with no general election to put them there.

© Kevan James 2019

Read more of Kevan James views in his column here on KJM Today and in News Commentary.

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