"For heaven's sake man, go!" - A brief history of votes of no-confidence in UK politics

On Tuesday afternoon, the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, lost a vote of no confidence conducted by the Parliamentary Labour Party by 172 votes to 40.  While Labour members remain solidly behind Corbyn, this was an unprecedented and unambiguously devastating result for the Labour leader who must now appreciate that there can be no reasonable prospect of him ever being able to form, much less lead a Labour government.   

Extrapolating the result of the Labour party vote to a vote of no confidence in Parliament (admittedly, an inexact science) and assuming that Corbyn is unlikely to command the support of any party (other than perhaps the Greens), such a vote of no-confidence could result in a vote against Corbyn’s “government” of 609-41, a majority of 568.  Indeed if by some stroke of fortune, such as a catastrophic split in the Conservative party, Corbyn was actually invited by the Queen to attempt to form a new Government, it seems clear that virtually his first act as Prime Minister would be to call a General Election as he would no doubt be compelled to do under the Fixed Term Parliament Act. 

There is virtually no historical precedent for this (relatively) long-standing tolerance of such a significant groundswell of opposition to an incumbent leader, other than among deposed dictators who inevitably end up being overthrown by the baying masses.  There have however been some comparable instances where either due to personal ineptitude or, as Harold MacMillan might term them, “events”, the government of the day has been forced to step aside:

Ramsey McDonald 

In 1924, the Workers Weekly (the newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain) published an open letter to members of the military, calling for them to “line up with your fellow workers in an attack upon the exploiters and capitalists” and to “turn your weapons on your oppressors.”

Ostensibly an offence under the Incitement to Mutiny Act, it was recommended by the Attorney General that the editor of the publication be prosecuted.
However, under pressure from back benchers, McDonald’s Labour government forced the charges to be withdrawn.

Accused by Liberals and Conservatives of pro-Soviet and radical left-wing activity, the two parties united to force a vote on a motion of no confidence, winning by 304-191 and with a majority of 166.  The Conservatives were promptly returned to power with a majority of 208, evidence perhaps that being held hostage by the radical left-wing of the Labour party inevitably leads to electoral annihilation.

The Earl of Aberdeen

Although not strictly a vote on a motion of no confidence in the Government, the vote in 1855 on the appointment of a select committee to enquire into government’s conduct of the Crimean War was seen as a direct challenge to the administration of the incumbent Prime Minister, George Hamilton-Gordon, the 4th Earl of Aberdeen.

Following the break-out of the Crimean War in 1853 and Britain’s entry into the war on the side of Ottoman Empire in 1854, public opinion very quickly turned against the war effort. The British and French siege of the Russian port of Sevastopol in October 1854 marked a turning point as British fatalities increased and reports of gross mismanagement by the British command filtered back from the East.

After 2 days of debate, the motion to appoint the proposed select committee was passed by a vote of 305-148, effectively a majority against the government of 157.  The government resigned the following day and the Viscount Palmerston formed a new government a few days later.

While difficult to see a pacifist Corbyn administration befalling a similar fate, history teaches us that governments which are unable to demonstrate competence in the administration and leadership of our armed forces often themselves face the proverbial firing squad.

Marquess of Salisbury

On 26 January 1886, the commons passed a vote of no confidence in Lord Salisbury’s administration, voting 329-250 for an Salisbury’s amendment to Salisbury’s Queen’s Speech.  The amendment?  An expression of regret that “no measures were announced [in the Queen's Speech] for the present relief of those suffering under economic pressures, especially for affording facilities to the agricultural labourers and others in the rural districts to obtain allotments and small holdings on equitable terms as to rent and security of tenure”

A majority of 79 supported the “three acres and a cow” amendment and Salisbury was duly ousted as these new arguments for the fair and equitable distribution of the country’s wealth assumed greater prominence in the national discourse.  Debate on such issues would grow and persist throughout and until the late 20th Century, rediscovering prominence in 2015 with the election of one Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour party.

Sir Robert Peel

Trade difficulties with close European neighbours has often led to trouble for British Prime Ministers and their administrations.  In 1845 and in order to relieve some of the suffering of the people of Ireland caused by the Great Famine, Peel’s government voted to repeal the Corn Laws which sought to protect Britain’s agricultural industry by imposing tariffs on the import of grain from Ireland.

Enraged protectionists waited for their opportunity to strike.  In 1846 and in response to the escalating tensions in Ireland caused by the Great Famine, Peel introduced the Protection of Life (Ireland) Bill (more commonly known as the Irish Coercion Bill) to attempt calm the escalating tensions on the island.  Seeing their chance, a combination of Conservative protectionists, Whigs and Radicals voted down the bill 219-292 in what was seen as a motion of no confidence in Peel’s Irish policies.  A majority of 73 put paid to Peel and he resigned 2 days later.

With pending trade negotiations between a newly “sovereign” UK and the EU prominent on the agenda of any UK government in the short and medium term, protectionists and free-traders across all parties may once again be seen to trade blows. Of course, in 1846 the long-time critic of the European Union, Jeremy Corbyn, would no doubt have been on the winning side…

Lord North

Lord North needs little introduction.  North became Prime Minister in 1770, presiding over the commencement of the American war of independence in 1776.  Following defeat of the British troops by the rebels during the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, Henry Conway, a Whig MP, introduced into Parliament a motion to end “the further prosecution of offensive warfare”.

The motion was passed in the House of Commons by a vote of 234-215 on 27 February 1782, a majority of 19 against the Government.  North promptly tendered his resignation and both the war and the American colonies were lost arguably precipitating the decline of the empire and the UK’s steadily decreasing lack of influence in global affairs, culminating in last week’s vote to voluntarily remove itself from the largest supra-national and trading organization in history.

Deposed by a commons majority of 19...  A Prime Minister Corbyn would presumably declare this to be an overwhelming mandate!