Can a government continue in office if it loses a motion of confidence in a minister?

Murphy-1024x580Last night’s motion of confidence in the minister for housing, Eoghan Murphy, failed to pass;  the vote was 53 for, 56 against, and 35 recorded abstentions. One of the reasons that it might have failed is because the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that a defeat for the government on this would cause a pre-Christmas election. That might have concentrated minds among a few TDs that the government depends on, perhaps especially the independents, Michael Lowry, Noel Grealish, and Denis Naughten. Free of the threat of an early, wintry election they might have been happy to vote against the government.

The attachment of the confidence motion to a bill is a weapon available to prime ministers in many Westminster countries – though it’s been removed from Westminster as a result of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. John Major, not yet at the nadir of his premiership used a confidence motion to get his Bill on Maastricht Treaty passed in the Commons when many in his party opposed it. This raised the question whether there would have been a need for an election, or was this just a threat borne of political expediency? Many argued that it was just a threat, and there would be no need for an election. One ‘fact checking’ website confidently declared the claim by the government that there would need to be an election was ‘False’.

But is it? Certainly last night’s motion was not a formal motion of confidence in the government, which is subject to special Dáil rules. This suggests this then was just a motion of confidence in the minister, and that the government could have governed on regardless. (But there is also a confidence motion in a Taoiseach that is not treated with those special rules in Dáil Standing Orders, yet we can’t have the Taoiseach resign without the government also going). This gets to what is the test for a Taoiseach having ceased to retain the confidence of the Dáil? Arguably the current Taoiseach doesn’t have it at all, because he has no majority, yet he governs regardless.

But the question is open to speculation. Is an defeat on an explicit confidence motion required? What about a loss on a major part of the policy programme? What is the situation for a government that relies on abstentions? Perhaps the Constitution should be changed to make explicit what it means by confidence. There is no legal guidance for this, so we’re left with political practice.

The practice is that the Taoiseach gets to choose. We’d normally expect that a government that loses a vote on a budget (supply vote) has lost the confidence of the Dáil, and that is what happened in 1982 when the FitzGerald I government fell. But it doesn’t have to be; It could be better thought of as the loss of a working majority for the government. The stage at which a Taoiseach feels he or she can no longer govern because they can no longer depend on the support of the Dáil for their policy programme. It can be a small matter. In 1989 Haughey III fell because Haughey treated a loss on a relatively minor motion to allocate spending to a group of people with haemophilia as a result of state action as a loss of a working, governing majority. Most people thought he could have gone on – and he certainly could, but he was in a minority already and felt hamstrung by that.

Ministers often resign before confidence motions in anticipation of a loss on a confidence motion or just in anticipation of a motion itself. These are often cases where a minister had acted or failed to act in some way that has been damaging to the governing of the country. The sacking of Denis Naughten might be a case in point. The question is then what was last night’s vote about? Was it about a personal indiscretion or administrative action by the minister?  Or was it about government policy?

The government’s Rebuilding Ireland policy is one of its major activities. Polls show housing is the biggest issue for the public, and so government’s housing policy is a central plank of the general government policy. Last night the debate was a vote of confidence in government policy on housing. The opposition was explicit in this. Speaker after speaker, including the Social Democrat members who put down the motion, highlighted a need for change in the Rebuilding Ireland policy and what it saw as the failure of the policies to deliver housing.  Richard Boyd Barrett was clear:

This is not personal. This is not about Deputy Eoghan Murphy as an individual; this is about a policy that has failed and the shameful consequences of that policy.

Jan O’Sullivan stated:

The Labour Party has no confidence in the Government and we particularly have no confidence in the Government with respect to its action or inaction relating to housing and homelessness.

So was it reasonable for the Taoiseach to interpret the vote last night as a vote in the confidence of the government? If it had lost, the Dáil would have directed the Taoiseach to sack a minister because it didn’t like government policy. It would have meant a rejection of the government’s policy and shown that the government no longer had the confidence of the Dáil to govern. It would hardly be realistic or reasonable to expect a government to continue on in those circumstances.

In the end a Taoiseach has the call on this. That annoys people, because it gives Taoisigh significant power to re-weight the choices facing the Dáil. Whether that is a power the Oireachtas should cede to the Taoiseach is debatable, but separate from the question posed above. That threat isn’t absolute, it depends on political circumstances. It wouldn’t exist if an alternative government could be identified within the existing Dáil. But it is a threat, and it is a reasonable one to make if the government is being tested in the Dáil on a major part of government policy.



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