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confidence and supply

noun [uncountable]

an agreement between political parties that allows a minority party to play a part in government but is less formal than a coalition (= a temporary joining of political parties to form a government)

'It would leave the door open to the two parties entering into a confidence and supply arrangement, which would see the SNP vote through Budget proposals and vote for the Government in a no confidence vote.'

Sky News 16th March 2015

After months of campaigning it's now crunch time for the UK's political parties, as the great British public finally get to cast their vote in the 2015 general election on 7th May. As I write the result is not yet known, but one thing looking pretty certain is that no single party will be popular enough to secure an overall majority. Amid speculation about possible outcomes and the inter-party deals likely to be needed to form a government, an obscure bit of political terminology has crept out of the woodwork – the concept of confidence and supply.

the confidence part … relates to the smaller party's agreement to back the larger party on 'votes of no confidence', supply relates to its support of the larger party's budget and thereby the spending required to enact its policies

A more familiar word in this scenario is coalition, describing a government comprised of two or more political parties who, in theory at least, govern cooperatively, effectively reducing the dominance of any one party within the group. Coalitions are common in countries where parliament is elected by proportional representation, but they're sometimes also formed when no single party achieves a majority – a situation which occurred in the UK back in 2010 and resulted in a coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

The lesser-known alternative to a coalition is confidence and supply, an agreement which is not as formal but still gives a minority party power and influence. Sometimes abbreviated to C&S, this is an arrangement in which one or more smaller parties agree to support a larger party on its budget and on any motions proposed by other parties with the intention of bringing it down. However the smaller party still has the right to judge other proposals on merit, voting against the larger party if they so wish. The confidence part of the expression relates to the smaller party's agreement to back the larger party on 'votes of no confidence', supply relates to its support of the larger party's budget and thereby the spending required to enact its policies.

Background – confidence and supply

The concept of a confidence and supply agreement in UK politics dates at least as far back as the 1970s, when a minority Labour government was supported by the then Liberal Party, an arrangement popularly described as the 'Lib-Lab pact'. More recently C&S agreements have helped form governments in Australia and New Zealand.

Election season has a habit of blowing the dust off little-used terms in English, such as the classic swingometer, a graphical device used on live TV programmes to show swings from one party to another as the results come in. There's also the related discipline of psephology, the scientific study of elections, with derived terms psephological, psephologist, etc and even psepholograph, a graphical representation of opinion polls. Voters themselves need to be careful not to overvote, though technical advances mean that future voters in the US seem unlikely to have to contend with the perils of the chad.

The outgoing Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition has left its own linguistic legacy in the form of tongue-in-cheek adjectives coalicious (=coalition + delicious) and coaliffy (=coalition + iffy), the former used when things are going well between the two parties, the latter when relations are sour.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 6th May 2015.

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