Number 10 has apparently admitted her deal could be defeated by a “significant” margin. What does that mean—and how would a defeat that involves a substantial Conservative rebellion measure up against other famous votes?by Philip Cowley / January 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
As the newspaper front pages talk of May’s “ebbing power” and the Prime Minister “caving in,” politicians on both sides of the aisle are looking ahead to next week’s Meaningful Vote as yet another potential drubbing. Number 10 has apparently admitted her deal could be defeated by a “significant” margin.
What does that mean—and how would a defeat that involves a substantial Conservative rebellion measure up against other famous votes?
Size of government rebellion: five key benchmarks
139: Currently the largest rebellion of modern British politics, over Iraq in 2003. It was larger than any rebellion of any party since the Corn Laws.
95: The largest Conservative rebellion of modern British politics. Occurred in 1997, over post-Dunblane gun control under John Major.
91: The largest rebellion faced by David Cameron, over Lords reform in 2012.
81: The largest rebellion over European policy, by members of any party since 1945, another Cameron rebellion, this time from 2011.
72: The largest revolt faced by Margaret Thatcher. Over Sunday trading in 1986.
All these figures exclude abstentions.
Size of defeat
Defeats are harder to classify. We need to exclude votes where the government chose not to fight (as with opposition day motions at the moment); we also need to exclude the handful of cases where the opposition has pulled off an ambush, catching the government whips unawares; and we need to exclude votes which were in fact free votes, in full or in part (as with some votes in 1996).
Exclude these and focus on meaningful defeats—no pun intended—and around half of the government defeats since 1918 have been by ten votes or fewer; around two-thirds are by 20 or fewer. The two defeats seen this week were therefore pretty normal in terms of scale, if not circumstance.
If, as is occasionally claimed, the government is looking at a defeat of by more than 100 votes, that will be something that has only happened three times in the last hundred years. All took place during the Labour minority government of 1924, when the government suffered three defeats of 166, 161 and 140.
But Labour then held under 200 seats, governed only with the tacit support of the Liberals, and knew it could suffer heavy defeat at any point.
After that, there is a defeat by 89 in 1979, albeit on a very low turnout.
The largest post-war defeat where at least 50 per cent of the House voted came in 1978, with the Callaghan government going down by 86 votes. (I’m happy to admit that my knowledge of 19th century votes is much sketchier—I am aware how sad a sentence that is to write—but I can’t find any of this magnitude.)
All of these figures give you an indication of how historically unprecedented this week’s defeat could be.