Voting Down The Queen’s Speech

With the Conservatives still short of a deal that will guarantee their majority, there is a real chance that Theresa May’s government could be defeated on the Queen’s Speech. A reader named Nathan recently wrote to ask if any examples of governments losing this crucial vote.

First, we need to understand how the Speech from the Throne can bring down a government. It’s customary for MPs to thank the Queen for the speech by presenting her with a ‘Humble Address.’ Invariably, the Opposition tries to amend the address by inserting language that deprecates the government and its policies. Usually, this is nothing more than political theatre, as a government with a majority can easily vote down these amendments. But a minority government without a confidence and supply agreement could be vulnerable to defeat. If the address is amended in such a way that it condemns the incumbent government, that would be tantamount to a vote of no confidence.

The last Prime Minister to suffer the indignity of losing the vote on the Speech from the Throne was Stanley Baldwin in 1924, and there are some striking similarities between his situation and the one facing Theresa May. Baldwin also became Prime Minister following the unexpected resignation of his predecessor, and although he had a majority, he called a snap election in December 1923 in order to win a stronger mandate for his approach to a controversial issue (in his case, it was tariff reform).

Like May, Baldwin ended up losing his majority, though the Tories were still the largest party in the Commons. This prompted him to try to carry on as a minority government. He went to Parliament in January 1924 with a King’s Speech, but Labour tabled an amendment stating that the House had no confidence in the King’s present advisers, and the Liberals helped ensure its adoption. Baldwin promptly resigned, and Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald was allowed to form his own minority government with the support of the Liberals, though it only lasted eleven months and a further election returned Baldwin to Downing Street before the year’s end.

Although an amendment to the Humble Address has traditionally been enough to bring down a government, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has muddied the waters somewhat. Section 2(4) of the Act specifies the form of a motion of no confidence (“That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”), and amending the Humble Address might not comply with that provision. In theory, that means that any vote on the Queen’s Speech would be purely symbolic, and if Labour actually wanted to bring down the Government, they would have to table another motion using the words found in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

However, if Labour successfully amended the address, it would be very hard for Theresa May to continue in office. At that point, I suspect she would probably resign and advise the Queen to ask Jeremy Corbyn to form a government. She could also ask the House to authorize another snap election, though she would need the support of a substantial number of non-Tory MPs to get it passed.

If Corbyn did form a government, he would not need to present a Queen’s Speech of his own. Constitutionally speaking, it would be redundant. The Queen has opened Parliament; as long as it isn’t prorogued, there is no need for a further speech. When Ramsay MacDonald took over in 1924, he simply made his own statement outlining the new government’s priorities, and Corbyn would probably follow his precedent. He isn’t exactly a fervent monarchist, so I can’t see him wanting any more royal pomp and circumstance than is absolutely necessary.

Corbyn’s government would almost certainly face a vote of confidence–he might even table it himself in a bid to establish his right to govern. If he were defeated, MPs would have little choice but to vote for an early election. While the Fixed-term Parliaments Act establishes a 14-day window after a no confidence vote in which others can try to form a government, this would be pointless if both the Tories and Labour have already lost the confidence of the Commons.

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