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May’s meaningful vote was the biggest government defeat in British history. What were the others?

May’s EU Withdrawal Act suffered the mother of all parliamentary defeats


Image: Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE) 


When voted on May’s EU Withdrawal Act suffered the mother of all parliamentary defeats. Although many pundits predicted that it would be rejected, few expected quite the crushing scale of Tory rebellions, with a staggering 118 Conservative MPs rejecting their leader’s deal. 202 voted with the government, and 432 against, making the EU Withdrawal Act the biggest government defeat in British political history. 

It is difficult to find parallels that match the political turbulence parliament has faced over the past few months. But how does the meaningful vote match up with the other biggest government defeats in British political history? 


1. Enquiry into Campbell case – Ramsay Macdonald, 8 October, 1924

This case is now the second biggest government defeat. MacDonald formed a minority government in 1923, joining forces with Asquith’s Liberal Party to make a total of 349 seats.

The Campbell case involved charges against J.R. Campbell, editor of the Communist newspaper, Workers Weekly. Campbell was accused of attempting to incite mutiny in the British military, after sending an open letter telling soldiers to ‘refuse to fight for profits’.

MacDonald, the Labour Prime Minister, decided to suspend prosecution of the case. However, with a fear of Communist agitation and strikes sweeping 1920s Britain, the Liberals and Conservatives were able to paint MacDonald a soft-touch stooge under the influence of the hard left. The PM’s request to suspend prosecution was defeated by 161 votes, and paved the way for a no-confidence, which MacDonald lost, leading to a general election at the end of the month.


2. Housing Bill – Ramsay Macdonald, 3 June, 1924

The Campbell case was not the only humiliating defeat MacDonald’s administration suffered. A few months before, the Labour government had its Housing Bill rejected by a 140-vote defeat.


3. Firearms (Variation of Fees) Order – Jim Callaghan, 22 March, 1979

Jim Callaghan took over as PM after Harold Wilson stood down due to ill health in 1976. The Labour Government had only just scraped a majority at the last election, so it’s no surprise Callaghan encountered several heavy government defeats.

MPs rejected the motion to scrap fees for firearms certificates, with the government losing by 89 votes. 


Hopefully this helps you see just how large this defeat was and why there was so much focus on what would happen next.


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