Interestingly, the infamous era of Thatcherism in the UK was ushered in by a successful vote of no-confidence against the Labour Party’s PM James Callaghan. The Labour Party had come into power in October 1974 with a small majority of three MPs. However, years of inflation and unemployment saw support for the Callaghan government wither away, culminating in the Labour party losing its majority in parliament after the 1976 by-elections.
As a result, the ruling party decided to form a coalition with the Liberal Party, which had 13 MPs at the time. But Callaghan failed to satisfy the demands of his allies, and eventually lost their support as well. With blunders piling up, Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, moved the following motion on 26 March 1979:
“Mr Speaker, I beg to move, ‘That this house has no confidence in her Majesty’s Government’.”
The vote of no-confidence was passed by a razor thin majority of one vote. A general election was subsequently called that led to 18 years of Conservative Party rule, 11 of those under Margaret Thatcher.
Comparing that moment in UK’s history to the events unfolding in Pakistan today, as PM Imran Khan faces a no-confidence motion, reveals some glaring similarities and differences.
Then, just as now, the government over promised and under delivered. The Labour Party came into power promising a stronger economy, better infrastructure, lower inflation, and higher jobs. It failed to deliver on any of these fronts. The winter of 1978, dubbed ‘The Winter of Discontent’, saw a prolonged period of industrial unrest.
Imran Khan’s PTI government came into power promising, among other things, to weed out corruption, reduce reliance on the West and increase social equality. It has not delivered on any of these promises. Pakistan’s world ranking on the gender equality and corruption indices has fallen dramatically. Inflation is soaring. Current account deficit is touching historic highs and Pakistan is still reliant on Western loans and bailouts.
Similarly, the Callaghan government also lost the support of its allies. After losing its majority in 1976, the Labour party had signed what was known as the Lib-Lab pact with the Liberal party promising their support. However, government allies, along with the opposition Scottish National Party, were the first to float the idea of a no-confidence motion which was eventually picked up by the Conservative party as well. Three Labour MPs left after the by-elections of 1976. Two of them went on to form the Scottish Labour Party that would eventually vote against the government in the vote of no-confidence.
The decision of PTI allies PML-Q, MQM-P and BAP is still hanging in the balance and it is expected that they will not announce their decision on the vote of no-confidence until after OIC foreign ministers’ meeting. Many PTI MNAs have defected so far. The number currently is being put at 24 with many more defections expected close to the vote, as MNAs realize their party’s chances of succeeding are slim and will be looking to cut a deal with the opposition to get a winning party ticket for next elections.
And this is where the two processes make their first major divergence. In the 1979 vote, not a single Labour MP voted against party lines, and no claims of horse-trading were made. Labour party did lose the crucial vote of Sir Alfred Broughton who was not able to attend due to sickness. Had he cast his vote, the no-confidence motion would have failed.
Interestingly in this situation, current PTI MNAs have openly vowed to support the vote of no-confidence against the government which raises some serious questions under Article 63 of the Constitution. The way Supreme Court of Pakistan interprets and answers these questions might end up determining the fate of the no-confidence motion. Can PM Khan, as party head, pre-emptively stop defecting members of his party from voting on the confidence motion? Under Article 63, would a ban on floor crossing members be a lifetime ban? These issues will decide whether defecting PTI MNAs are prepared to take the plunge, and if others will follow suit.
At no point was the UK Supreme Court involved, as the entire process was conducted on the Parliament floor in a matter of days. After Thatcher raised the no-confidence motion on 26 March 1979, the government arranged for the motion to be debated on 28 March, following which a vote took place on the very same day. There was also not a threat of the Speaker using his powers to abrogate his constitutional duties and delay the process.
Under Article 54 of the Constitution, Speaker Asad Qaiser is required to summon the National Assembly to meet within fourteen days of the receipt of the requisition (which was received on March 8). The Supreme Court might also have to step in to determine the issue of whether the Speaker can use his powers to attempt to delay the process by pushing the vote forward.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the role of the establishment. In the 1979 UK case, there was no concept of establishment neutrality for the no-confidence motion to succeed. The opposition was not waiting for a green signal, and the allied parties were not waiting for their queues. While the UK process was messy and highly contentious, and carried its own elements of difficulty, the process was handled democratically on the floor of the parliament.
Callaghan also did not use the institutions at his disposal as a sitting PM to somehow prevent the MPs from voting, or alternatively, make it difficult for them to do so. PM Khan, on the other hand, has planned a rally on 27 March in Islamabad, which could quickly turn the situation hostile and violent. As the Sindh House incident has already shown, the police, that are most likely taking their cues from Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid, cannot be trusted to handle the situation that day. So, would the Rangers be called in? Or perhaps the armed forces? It is a slippery slope when a democratic process is not allowed to proceed democratically.
A no-confidence motion against a sitting prime minister is an inherent right vested in parliamentarians and protected by Article 95 of the constitution. If extra-democratic forces are involved, and unconstitutional means are deployed to subvert that right, an inherently contentious process can quickly become volatile. Decision makers must ensure such a situation is avoided and the vote of no-confidence is allowed to take place as smoothly and peacefully as possible, in line with democratic norms and their constitutional duties.