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Motion of no confidence

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A Motion of No Confidence, also called Motion of Non Confidence is a parliamentary motion traditionally put before a parliament by the opposition in the hope of defeating or embarrassing a government. On rare occasions, it may also be put on the parliamentary order paper by an erstwhile supporter who themselves have lost confidence in the government. The motion is passed or rejected by means of a parliamentary vote.

Governments often respond to a Motion of No Confidence by proposing a Motion of Confidence which according to Anglo-Saxon parliamentary procedure takes precedence and so replaces the Motion of No Confidence. In presidential systems, the legislature may occasionally pass motions of no confidence as was done against United States Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the 1950s, but these motions are of symbolic effect only.

The tradition began in March 1782 when following the defeat of the British army at Yorktown in the American Revolutionary War, the Parliament of the Kingdom of Great Britain voted that they "can no longer repose confidence in the present ministers." The then Prime Minister, Lord North, responded by asking King George III to accept his resignation. This did not immediately create a constitutional convention; however, during the early 19th century, attempts by Prime Ministers to govern in the absence of a parliamentary majority proved unsuccessful, and by the mid 19th century, the ability of a motion of no confidence to break a government was firmly established in the UK.

Typically, when parliament votes No Confidence, or where it fails to vote confidence, a government must either

  1. resign, or
  2. seek a parliamentary dissolution and request a General Election.

This procedure is either formalized through constitutional convention as is the case with the United Kingdom or explicitly stated in the constitutional law as is the case with Germany.

Where a government has lost the confidence of the responsible house (i.e., the directly elected lower chamber which can select and dismiss it, though in some states both houses of parliament are responsible) a head of state may have the constitutional right to refuse a request for a parliamentary dissolution, so forcing an immediate resignation.

There are a number of variations in this procedure. For example, in Germany, a vote of No Confidence requires that the opposition, on the same ballot, propose a candidate of their own whom they want to be appointed Chancellor by the Federal President; thus the Motion of No Confidence is required to be at the same time a Motion of Confidence for a new candidate. The idea was to prevent crises of the state by always having a Chancellor in office. Unlike the British system, the Chancellor does not resign in response to passage of a vote of No Confidence but rather is dismissed by the Federal President (see Constructive Vote of No Confidence).

A Motion of No Confidence can be proposed in the government collectively or by any individual member, including the Prime Minister. Sometimes Motions of No Confidence are proposed, even though they have no likelihood of passage, simply to pressure a government or to embarrass its own critics who nevertheless for political reasons dare not vote against it. In many parliamentary democracies, strict time limits exist as to the proposing of a No Confidence motion, with a vote only allowed once every three, four or six months. Thus knowing when to use a Motion of No Confidence is a matter of political judgement; using a Motion of No Confidence on a relatively trivial matter may prove counterproductive to its proposer if a more important issue suddenly arises which warrants a Motion of No Confidence, because a motion cannot be proposed if one had been voted on recently and cannot be proposed again for a number of months.

Passage of a Motion of No Confidence is a relatively rare event in modern two party democracies. In almost all cases, party discipline is sufficient to allow a majority party to defeat a Motion of No Confidence, and if faced with likely defections in the government party, the government is likely to change its policies rather than lose a vote of No Confidence. The cases in which a Motion of No Confidence have passed are generally those in which the government party has a slim majority which is eliminated by either by-elections or defections.

Often, important bills serve as Motions of No Confidence. For example, if a budget fails to pass, this is usually considered equivalent to the government losing the confidence of parliament as it is a piece of legislation the government needs to pass. Sometimes a government may lose a vote because the opposition ends debate prematurely when too many of its members are away on business, pleasure or lunch; in this case, however, the prime minister rarely resigns or calls an election.

Motions of No Confidence are far more common in multi-party systems in which a minority party must form coalition government. This can result in the situation in which there are many short-lived governments because the party structure allows small parties to break a government without means to create a government. This has widely been regarded as the cause of instability for the French Fourth Republic and the German Weimar Republic. More recent examples of this phenomenon have been in Italy between the 1950's and 1990's and Israel.

To deal with this situation, the French placed large amount of executive power in the hands of the President of France which is immune from Motions of No Confidence. Post-War Germany has prevented the passage of multiple Motions of No Confidence by using electoral rules which discourage small parties and by having a constitutional provision known as a Constructive Vote of No Confidence in which a Motion of No Confidence does not dissolve a government unless the proposers of the motion have named an alternative prime minister.

Prime Ministers who have been defeated by votes of no confidence










United Kingdom


Last updated: 02-18-2005 22:50:22
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55