The Queen’s Speech and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act
The Queen’s Speech is the first point at which a government’s ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons is tested. Along with other key votes like Budgets and certain big bills, it has historically been seen as an effective vote of confidence.
The last time one was lost was in January 1924 when Stanley Baldwin called an election and lost his majority, but stayed on to the King’s Speech. He resigned and a minority Labour government took over.
The FTPA stipulates that if a government loses a specifically worded vote of confidence (“That this House has [or ‘has no’] confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”), this then triggers a 14-day process for a new government to be formed and for it to get a vote of confidence passed. If a new government cannot be formed a further election is called.
Theresa May used the FTPA for the first time to trigger the recent election, but none of its other clauses have been tested, so constitutional experts and politicians have different views about its meaning.
Some question whether other votes – including the Queen’s Speech and Budget – can still be viewed as confidence motions in the old tradition. However, the political reality is that if the Conservatives lost a vote on the Queen’s Speech, they would be under enormous political pressure to resign or would face an immediate vote of no confidence from Labour.
If Theresa May did lose the Queen’s Speech and felt compelled to resign immediately, then the question is whether Jeremy Corbyn would be the one to form a new government or refuse (refusals have occurred in UK government history), or whether the Conservatives would argue they could try again under a new prime minister. If Corbyn refused, either May would have to stay on or an alternative Conservative prime minister would have to form a government. Either way, two things are clear: the Queen cannot be put in the position of making a choice between prime ministers and we cannot have no government.
If the Conservatives struggled on, it would lead to Labour putting down a no confidence motion. This would provide a second opportunity for all Conservative MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to reject it. Of course, this would prove controversial.
If May offered her resignation immediately and Labour took office, it could not call an election without going through the FTPA motions (which, since Corbyn has indicated he wants another election, seems likely). Labour would still either need two-thirds of all MPs to vote in favour of another election (i.e. Conservative support) or would have to use the FTPA’s vote of confidence mechanism and vote down its own government.
So, the FTPA could help the Conservatives stay in power. It allows them to say to the DUP that if they don’t help prop up the Government for the Queen’s Speech, but also in any subsequent votes of confidence and the Budget, a minority Labour government (or progressive alliance) could be formed.
However, political realities would play an important role. If neither the Conservatives nor a subsequent Labour government could manage to keep the confidence of the House of Commons, in the end there will be no alternative to a second election.