The historical significance of Theresa May’s Brexit defeat

On Tuesday, MPs rejected Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement by 432 votes to 202 – the largest Commons defeat in modern history. In previous centuries, a defeat on this scale would have been enough to force the prime minister to resign or to call a general election, says historian Professor Richard Toye. So why, then, is May expected to survive a vote of confidence tonight? History, he says, provides us with the answer…

British prime minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street to attend PMQs, after she suffered a major defeat in parliament over her Brexit deal, 16 January 2019. (Photo by Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

What is the historical significance of Theresa May’s Brexit defeat and the subsequent vote of no confidence in her government?

“This is an unprecedented turn of events, and it is an unintended consequence of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011,” says Prof Toye. Under current rules outlined in the act, if a motion stating “That this House has no confidence in HM Government” is lost by the government and a new government with the support of a majority of MPs cannot be formed within 14 days, parliament is dissolved and an early general election is triggered.

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But Theresa May looks set to survive tonight’s confidence vote because Conservative and DUP MPs are not likely to want to risk a general election.

(Illustration by Davide Bonazzi for BBC History Magazine)

“The motivation behind the 2011 act was to reduce the arbitrary power of a prime minister to conjure up a parliamentary majority by calling a general election at a time convenient to them,” says Toye. “But as we saw in 2017, the act did not prevent Theresa May from calling a general election – she did so because she thought she would secure a majority and therefore be free to do whatever she wanted. As it turned out, she did not succeed, and she instead found herself in a minority government heavily reliant on Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party).

“We saw last night that a huge number of Tory MPs and members of the DUP clearly don’t have confidence in May’s Brexit deal, but they don’t want to risk triggering a general election or getting Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10, so they will most likely ‘rally round’ and support the prime minister and she will therefore survive the vote of confidence.

“So we find ourselves in a situation post-2011 where it is incredibly difficult for the Opposition to force a general election, because the government will survive the preceding vote of no confidence.”

National and international newspapers on a London newsstand show reactions to the historic loss in the Brexit deal vote, 16 January 2019. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
National and international newspapers on a London newsstand show reactions to the historic loss in the Brexit deal vote, 16 January 2019. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Historically, this wasn’t the case, says Toye. “In previous decades or centuries, last night’s defeat alone would have been enough to topple the government, or at the very least it would have had fundamental consequences: May would have had to resign or have called a general election.

“Historically, if a government couldn’t get a key piece of legislation (like the EU withdrawal bill) passed, it was deemed to have lost the confidence of the Commons.

“I would also argue that last night’s defeat was larger than it might have been pre-2011, because Conservative MPs would probably have thought twice about voting against the deal if there had been a real threat of a general election being called.

“Ultimately, this is an unintended consequence of a well-meaning act that wasn’t thought through properly at the time.”

(Getty Images)

When was there last a parliamentary defeat of this scale? What historical parallels can we draw?

“It’s hard to think of a precise 20th-century analogy,” says Toye. “This really is uncharted territory”.

One possible comparison is the events of 1924, when a minority Labour government was in power. “The party leader, Ramsay MacDonald, was in an even worse position than Theresa May, because not only did he not have a majority, his party wasn’t even the biggest party in the House of Commons – the Conservatives were,” says Toye.

“This meant the government had a limited life-span – after all, how long, realistically, could they continue being the second-largest party in the House of Commons? All the opposition parties were effectively waiting to see when a general election would best work to their advantage. They were looking for a reason to ‘trip up’ the government.”

“The party leader, Ramsay MacDonald (far left), was in an even worse position than Theresa May," says Professor Richard Toye. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)
In 1924 Ramsay MacDonald (far left), the leader of the Labour minority government in power, was in an even worse position than Theresa May, says Professor Richard Toye. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

That opportunity presented itself in 1924. In July that year, the Communist Party’s Worker’s Weekly published a contentious article titled “Open Letter to the Fighting Forces”, which led to its acting editor, John Ross Campbell (aka JR Campbell), being arrested and charged with incitement to mutiny. The case was eventually withdrawn after doubts emerged about the chances of the prosecution being successful. However, the Tories quickly claimed the dropping of the case was politically motivated and MacDonald was accused of being soft on communism.

On 1 October 1924, the Conservatives put down a censure motion on the decision to drop the case against Campbell. Prime minister Ramsay MacDonald lost the vote, which took place a week later, by 364 votes to 198. A general election was called, and Labour was defeated by the Conservatives.

But Professor Toye notes a fatal flaw in this comparison between the events of 2019 and 1924: “There is a crucial distinction to be made,” he says. “The EU withdrawal bill is indisputably the most important issue facing the country today, whereas 1924 was ultimately just about political maneuvering – parties were trying to maximise their political advantage; it was all about electoral gain. It certainly wasn’t centred on something that was going to affect the lives of millions of people.”

(Photo by illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Are there any 19th-century parallels to last night’s defeat?

The Cordite vote of 1895 – that is, the vote of no confidence in the Rosebery ministry.

On 21 June 1895, the Liberal government of the Earl of Rosebery was defeated in a vote of censure by the House of Commons. Like the events of 1924, this was “a relatively obscure issue, not one that was going to affect millions of people,” says Toye. Nevertheless, it triggered a general election, which was won by the Conservatives.

“The events of 1895 illustrate how governments could quite easily fall over a relatively obscure issue when the parliamentary mathematics changed,” says Toye. “After all, MPs in the 19th century were less wedded to their party – informal coalitions were often formed and MPs would regularly shift their positions.

“In the 19th century there weren’t really ‘career politicians’ in the sense that we have them today. MPs, who weren’t paid, weren’t under the same pressure to remain loyal in order to keep their jobs, and party discipline was therefore less rigid.”

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Britain's decision to join the Common Market made front page news in the early Seventies. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

We can also draw parallels with the events of 1868, when divisions within the Liberal government over the course of parliamentary reform (primarily the 1867 Reform Act, which extended the franchise) allowed the opposing Conservative party to take power as a minority government. The bill sparked a Liberal revolt, the bill was lost, and the Liberal government fell.

Robert Blake, writing for the BBC website, explains: “Benjamin Disraeli, despite being in a minority, exploited the Liberal divisions to pass a measure much more radical than the Liberal one which he had just defeated. It was a masterstroke of political ingenuity, scandalised [William] Gladstone, and confirmed Disraeli as the inevitable leader of his party – he became [Conservative] prime minister in February 1868.”

But a general election held later that year [the first after passage of the Reform Act 1867, which enfranchised many male householders, thus greatly increasing the number of men who could vote in elections] saw the Liberals, led by Gladstone, nearly double their majority, to 116 seats. Disraeli resigned on 1 December 1868.

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Professor Richard Toye is head of history at the University of Exeter and the author of three books on Winston Churchill. His most recent book (co-authored with Professor Martin Thomas) is Arguing About Empire: Imperial Rhetoric in Britain and France, 1882–1956 (OUP 2017).