Under the Westminster constitution, the government must enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons, without which one or the other must go. It is often reported, by media and others learned in public law, that when the House of Commons withdraws its confidence in Her Majesty’s government, ‘the government has fallen’. It seems not to trouble those who profess as much that, almost without exception, it is the House of Commons that is dissolved, that each Member of Parliament is invited to seek re-election and that, throughout all this activity, the government—which could have resigned but did not—remains in office and the Prime Minister remains the Prime Minister.
The Governor General of Canada, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister, by proclamation dissolved the 40th Parliament on 26 March 2011 and gave instructions to issue writs of election. The Prime Minister’s advice was prompted by a motion, the first time in Canada’s short parliamentary history, approved by the House of Commons whereby the government was in contempt of Parliament and had thereby lost the confidence of the chamber.
Having been defeated by one House of Commons, the Prime Minister appealed to the next. And the results of the general election of 2 May 2011 affirm that the electorate, through its representatives, continues to have confidence in the government, which now has before it, for the first time in four general elections since 2004, a majority of members following the same party whip. In turn, the parliamentary opposition has been redrawn, with the fourth-placed parliamentary party—the New Democratic Party—now assuming the role of the Official Opposition and the former Leader of the Opposition defeated in his constituency, just as his Liberal Party—once labelled Canada’s natural governing party—was, by its own standards, defeated more generally in popular support. The Bloc Québécois, who regularly secured two-thirds of Quebec’s 75 seats, has seen its parliamentary representation reduced to four members, below official party status. And the Green Party has gained, for the first time in its history, an elected representative.
Grégoire Webber is Lecturer in Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science.