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Biggest government defeats in House of Commons

Politics | Published: | Last Updated:

The largest defeats have all taken place under Labour administrations.

Tony Blair and Jim Callaghan

The last time a government was defeated by more than 100 votes on the floor of the House of Commons was almost a century ago.

On October 8 1924, the minority Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald went down to a defeat of 166.

MPs voted on an amendment put forward by the Liberal Party to set up a select committee to investigate the government’s decision to drop criminal proceedings against JR Campbell, editor of the Communist newspaper Workers Weekly, which had recently published an article encouraging the armed forces to mutiny.

The government lost by 364 votes to 198.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Prime minister Ramsay MacDonald declared the issue a matter of confidence – and, having lost the vote, obtained a dissolution of the Commons the following day, which led to a general election that Labour lost.

Mr MacDonald’s minority government suffered a string of defeats during its short time in office in 1924, including another one that topped 100, when it lost a motion on its Housing Bill by 140.

Since 1924 no government has endured a defeat on the floor of the Commons of more than 100.

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The next largest defeat took place on March 22 1979, in the last few weeks of the Labour government led by Jim Callaghan.

MPs voted by 115 to 26 on a motion to annul the fees for a firearms certificate – a defeat of 89, although the number of MPs taking part in the vote was low.

Mr Callaghan’s government suffered a defeat of 86 on January 25 1978, when MPs voted by 204 to 118 on an opposition amendment to the Scotland Devolution Bill, which excluded Orkney and Shetland from the provisions of the Bill if they voted “no” in a referendum.

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Government defeats since 1979 have tended to occur by much smaller margins, though no prime minister – even with a landslide majority in the Commons – has escaped without at least one loss.

On April 14 1986, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher suffered a rare defeat over its plans to relax laws on Sunday trading in England and Wales.

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher suffered a Commons defeat over Sunday trading laws in 1986 (PA)

On the second reading of the Shops Bill, MPs voted against by 296 to 282 – a government defeat of 14.

More recently, the Labour government of Tony Blair was defeated on November 9 2005 on its proposal to allow police to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge.

MPs voted against by 322 votes to 291 – a government defeat of 31.

It was a small defeat but a symbolic one, as it was Mr Blair’s first House of Commons defeat since becoming prime minister eight years earlier in 1997.

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