Before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), there was a convention that the Government effectively underwent a confidence vote on substantive issues:

Confidence attached to substantive issues

  1. The third route to addressing issues of confidence is when the question of confidence is attached to a motion on a substantive issue. This would occur where a government decided, and announced in advance, that a particular policy was so central to its programme for government that, if it failed to secure the support of the House in a motion concerning that policy, it would be difficult for the government to remain in office. In such cases before the FTPA, the Prime Minister made clear in advance that the consequences of losing such a vote would be either the resignation of the government or the dissolution of Parliament, followed by a general election (which was at the time within their power to do). Designating an issue as one of confidence in this manner maximised the government’s strength among its own numbers to pass a vote, as Members of Parliament in the governing party or parties were likely to want to avoid a resignation or especially a general election. For example, in 1972 Prime Minister Edward Heath indicated that, if the European Communities Bill was not given a second reading, he would seek a dissolution of Parliament.

Are there any statistics on whether three-line whips were more or less likely to be used before FTPA?

I'm asking this because, on one hand, I can see the government not wanting to lose such important votes, to which confidence was attached, so perhaps more three-line whips were issued. On the other hand, the more direct consequences of the Government losing such a pre-FTPA confidence vote, possibly implying a dissolution of Parliament (thus the MPs losing their seats), perhaps had its own effect of enforcing party discipline.

So I'm curious if there's any study on the frequency of three-line whips before/after FTPA.

1 Answer 1


Indicating a that a vote was a matter of confidence was a very rare situation. It was only used as a last resort.

John Major lost the vote on the Maastricht Treaty. He, therefore, held a second vote, indicating that it was a matter of confidence, and in consequence, those Tories who had voted against him (mostly) changed their vote and voted in favour of Maastricht and in confidence of the government. Edward Heath's declaration that a vote was a confidence matter was another example. I'm not aware of any other situation in which a government explictly declared an issue to be a matter of confidence. As you see, this mechanism was only used rarely.

The Queen's speech and the budget were routinely considered to be matters of confidence, as a government could not function without a legislative programme or without the ability to raise tax. However these votes were not explicitly votes of confidence.

The Maastricht vote was a dire situation for the government. The confidence motion was used to force MPs to vote on party lines, and resulted in a win for the Government. Making a vote a matter of confidence is quite different from a three-line-whip, which is a normal procedure on matters of importance to the government. Most substantial government bills are given a three-line-whip on second reading. The government wins nearly all such votes, but losing a vote would not have been considered a matter of confidence.

Three-line-whips are and were a common instruction both before and after the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Declaring a vote to be a confidence issue was rare before the FTPA and cannot be done now.

Finding out which votes have a three line whip is hard, since the whips office don't publish the order papers that indicate which votes have which level of whipping. Nevertheless there has essentially been no change. Important government business is three-line whipped. Other matters may receive a 1 or 2 line whip.

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