Could the UK coalition become a “confidence and supply” agreement?

The Independent, on 28 May, reported:

The Tory backbench rumour mill suggests that Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, is dusting down the rules about how a “confidence and supply” arrangement would work.

If this were done, it would mean the cabinet would become a minority government, but the LibDems would agree not to vote in favor of a no-confidence motion. They would also commit to supporting (or at least not defeating the government over) the budget. In exchange, they would continue to be consulted on policy, but would forfeit their voice around the cabinet table.

Confidence and supply agreements, which have become the norm over the past decade in New Zealand as well as being common in other multiparty parliamentary systems, give the support party more flexibility while also preserving stability.

I have wondered since the election over a year ago why this was not the arrangement negotiated between the parties. Of course, the LibDems wanted ministerial positions and the greater policy influence that comes with them. But it was also apparent at the time that Conservative leader and PM David Cameron preferred a formal coalition over a minority government. Perhaps he still does, but as the next election draws nearer, both parties will have electoral interests in differentiating themselves. A confidence and supply agreement would make that easier.

If this change were made to the current UK governing arrangement, it would not change a provision of the original coalition agreement by which the parties agreed to legislate fixed election dates.

Ending the Coalition would not mean an immediate general election. A Bill is going through Parliament that should ensure it takes place in May 2015, which suits both parties.

9 thoughts on “Could the UK coalition become a “confidence and supply” agreement?

  1. I had the impression that the coalition agreement was an attempt to undercut the criticism that a hung parliament would cause instability and fractious government. Not sure how well that worked!

  2. They voted to keep SMDs and this is what they get. It could have all been solved with MMP!

  3. Thanks for this, Matthew. I had not seen it. I agree with your question about why this was not done in the first place, and I know that Gus O’Donnell was sent to New Zealand (presumably at great taxpayer expense) before the election to look into how supply and confidence agreements have worked there. I did research on this last year and interviewed a Scottish Government senior civil servant who said that his London counterparts wanted a formal coalition government, and nothing short of that. It sounded like the issue was ‘stability’ and reassuring the markets of this stability at a time when our finances (under Labour) were dire. I also wonder if the senior Liberal Democrats wanted posts in Cabinet so badly that they were willing to bring about turmoil in the party (whose supporters are definitely to the left of the MPs, and especially the leadership). Now things look bad for the Lib Dems, and I would not be surprised if some MPs are considering jumping ship unless more ‘distance’ is placed between them and the Conservatives. There was a report today saying that the Lib Dems are likely to do very badly under the new constituency boundaries to be set up for the 600-member House of Commons to be elected in 2015. They are polling very badly in opinion surveys and did badly in the May elections (particularly here in Scotland), and do not appear to have gained much from the coalition in terms of policy (there were some gains, but not very ‘exciting’ ones). It’s not a good time to be a Lib Dem.

  4. “Update: It look as if there may be an escape route for Cameron. I’ve just spoken to the Commons Information Office which has informed me that as a result of the
    Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a successful amendment to the Queen’s Speech is no longer regarded as a vote of no confidence in the government. This is because, for the first time, the bill offered a legal definition of a no confidence vote – a motion stating that ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ – meaning that defeats on matters such as the Queen’s Speech or the Budget are no longer regarded as votes of no confidence in the government. Prior to the Act, as the Information Office put it, “it was a motion of no confidence if everyone agreed that it was a motion of no confidence.”
    A 2010 briefing note from the House of Commons Library had suggested that some ambiguity remained. It stated that it was “not clear whether a defeat on a motion or issue of confidence would count as a vote of no confidence for the purposes of the legislation. For example, it is not clear whether a defeat on the Government’s budget would be considered as a vote of no confidence.” It went on to suggest that “One possibility would be for the Government to make it clear before such a division that they considered it to be a matter of confidence; then the Speaker would certify it as such. This would effectively allow the Government to table a constructive vote of no confidence.”
    But the Commons Information Office confirmed to me that this was not an option legally available to the government.
    I asked earlier whether, rather than resigning, Cameron would abandon centuries of parliamentary convention. It turns out he already has.

    – George Eaton, “If the Queen’s Speech is amended, the Prime Minister must resign: Were the EU referendum amendment passed, Cameron would either have to resign or abandon centuries of parliamentary convention,” The Staggers (New Statesman politics blog) (10 May 2013).

  5. If that is the case, I actually approve of the idea. While I understand and agree with the parliamentary principle that the government must have both confidence and a budget from parliament to govern, I never really understood why that meant that the parliament either took the budget and the government or neither. I can also see why some may see that a government running a budget it doesn’t fully approve of as a problem. However, as I see things, a government needs the confidence of the parliament as expressed by the support of a majority of MPs–that is, any majority of a parliament.

    Of course one must also remember that a true majority coalition could never really see a budget it doesn’t approve pass. All that this would do is allow for weaker majority and minority governments to survive. A recalcitrant coalition/confidence and supply partner cannot make unreasonable demands if the main party in government can find a new budget partner.

  6. Yes, I concur also. Whether the “magic words” are “this House has no confidence in the Prime Minister and Cabinet” or some other agreed formula (eg, the traditional reducing the budget or the PrM’s pay by one monetary unit), it should be something that has no other plausible motivation.

    The problem with treating any amendment to certain motions (budget, Queen’s Speech) as a vote of no confidence is it reduces the ability of backbenchers to exert some control over the executive. Any backbench rebellion or floor-crossing could, in theory, trigger the downfall of the Government and/or an early election.

  7. Nonetheless, I think the government could still declare it would resign if any legislation will not pass, effectively declaring it a matter of confidence.

  8. Again, agreed. A motion should represent loss/ lack of confidence if it either declares so explicitly or if the PrM has designated it in advance as a matter of confidence. If the PrM loses on a matter he or she has declared to be fundamental to the working relationship between the Cabinet and the legislature, this puts the onus on the PrM to either resign or request a dissolution.

    This should include, as well as the House rejecting the PrM’s bill outright, passing amendments to it that the PrM has declared in advance are unacceptable.

    But either way one should avoid the Canadian-style morass of having to read the entrails to workout whether “I don’t agree with the details of this party funding legislation” is or is not a coded message telling the viceroy “I’m sick of Stephen Harper and want him out of power” -in a situation where the House is not specific whether it means that and PrM Harper is specific that it doesn’t mean that.

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