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 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.
Britain’s current prime minister, Theresa May, is now eight seats shy of an overall majority, meaning the country is now in a hung parliament. This is why talks continue to form a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has ten seats. The first test this will face is the vote in the days following the debate on the Queen’s speech on June 21.
The Telegraph has reported that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party could introduce amendments during the vote to force a vote of no confidence in May’s government.
There have been three occasions in modern parliamentary history when a government failed to secure a majority on the Queen’s speech vote. May actually finds herself better placed than her predecessors.
Gladstone and the Irish home rulers
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 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 had incumbency on his side, 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 Queen’s speech and Salisbury’s government fell. Gladstone 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.
A second stumble
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, but under different circumstances. The creation of the Irish Free State in 1921 had removed the IPP home rule MPs from the Commons and near-universal suffrage after 1918 made the Labour party the second party in the Commons. 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 Liberal 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 the Conservative King’s speech in early 1924.
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 thumping majority and the Liberals were reduced to just 40 seats, from which they’ve never really recovered.
Lessons from history
Although the situations in 1886, 1892 and 1923 were very different to the one May faces today, they do suggest some parallels. In 1886 and 1893, the political legitimacy of the confidence and supply arrangement was questioned on a number of grounds.
The widespread sense that the DUP, a small, exclusively Northern Irish party, should not have such influence recalls the argument made by the jurist A V Dicey in the 1880s and 90s that Gladstone had allowed the Irish minority to dictate to the English majority. The Conservative party also condemned the Liberal alliance with the Irish nationalists back then as immoral and an alliance with criminality and terror. The morality of the deal with the DUP has also been questioned, though on largely different grounds.
Potentially more serious are the consequences, both political and legal, for the Good Friday Agreement, which demands political neutrality from the British government regarding power-sharing in Northern Ireland. As such, the DUP’s determination to keep Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn out of Number 10 makes it likely May will get her Queen’s speech approved by the Commons. But it is unlikely that this will lead to a period of strong and stable government.
The historical examples suggest that forming a government off the back of a Queen’s speech defeat does not lead to effective government in the medium term. With the demise of UKIP, May is advantaged by the relative unity of the right and, despite talk of the return of two-party politics, the continued fragmentation of the left. The Labour party, having recovered something of its capacity for unity and loyalty, should focus on winning the next general election. If they are to make a genuine stab at restoring UK social democracy, they’ll want to start the task with a comfortable majority for their first Queen’s speech since 2009.