List of successful votes of no confidence in British governments

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This a list of the successful votes of no confidence in British governments led by Prime Ministers of the Kingdom of Great Britain and subsequently the United Kingdom. The first such motion of no confidence to befall a ministry was in 1742 against Sir Robert Walpole, a Whig who served from 1721 to 1742 and was the de facto first Prime Minister to hold office. Thereafter there have been 21 votes of confidence successfully motioned against British governments. The most recent vote was against the ministry of James Callaghan, a Labour Party prime minister who had succeeded Harold Wilson as a result of a 1976 leadership election. Following defeat, Callaghan was forced to hold a general election by May 1979; he was defeated by Margaret Thatcher of the Conservative Party.

Before the vote in 1979, the most recent vote of no confidence in a British government was in 1924, the longest interval in British parliamentary history.

Defeat of the Walpole ministry[edit]

Robert Walpole (pictured) served kings George I and George II from 1714 to 1721.

The 1742 vote of no confidence in the government of Sir Robert Walpole was the first time that a Prime Minister of Great Britain resigned after a vote of no confidence by the House of Commons. Walpole is regarded as the first British prime minister, although he did not officially enjoy that title. He had been continually in office since April 1721 and relied the continuance of his government on the confidence of the King as well as that of Parliament.

As early as 1739, Walpole told the House of Commons that the ministry should be accountable to the Parliament.[1] During the following years, the support for the government in the House of Commons decreased gradually. In January 1742, the government introduced in a petition against the return of two Members of Parliament for Chippenham in recently held by-elections. The petition was defeated in the House of Commons by a vote of 235 to 236 on 28 January.[2]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 235
No votes 236

Walpole saw this defeat as the loss of Parliament's confidence in his ministry. As a result, he submitted his resignation as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer on 11 February and was replaced by Lord Wilmington. Walpole had been created Earl of Orford by the King on 6 February and left the House of Commons.[3] However, the principle of Cabinet collective responsibility had not been established and the other members of the Walpole ministry remained in office.

Defeat of the North ministry[edit]

Lord North (pictured) served King George III from 1770 to 1782.

The 1782 vote of no confidence in the government of Lord North was the first time that a British Cabinet was forced to resign after a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. Frederick North, Lord North became Prime Minister in January 1770. After the defeat of the British troops in the Siege of Yorktown, Henry Seymour Conway, a Whig MP, introduced into Parliament a motion to end "the further prosecution of offensive warfare" in America. The Motion was passed in the House of Commons by a vote of 234 to 215 on 27 February. The vote symbolised the loss of the King's support in Parliament for the war, as well as the loss of Parliament's confidence in the North government.[4] Feeling unable to hold his office any longer, North submitted his resignation on 22 March and his Cabinet resigned with him.[5] This was the first time that the Cabinet took collective responsibility and resigned after the loss of support in the Parliament.[1] The King then asked Lord Rockingham to form a government.

Motion and vote
Yes votes 234
No votes 215

Defeat of the first Pitt the Younger ministry[edit]

William Pitt the Younger (pictured) served King George III from 1783 to 1801. He reassumed the premiership in 1804 and served until his death in 1806.

The 1784 vote of no confidence in the government of William Pitt the Younger occurred in February 1784.

William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister in December 1783. He enjoyed the support of the King but was opposed and attacked by Charles James Fox and the Whigs in Parliament. On 2 February, Thomas Coke, a Whig MP, proposed in the House of Commons a motion that the "continuance of the ministers in office" is an obstacle to an "efficient, united and extended administration" of the country. The motion was carried by a vote of 223 to 204.[6][7]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 223
No votes 204

Pitt, however, refused to follow the precedent to resign. He retained the support of the King and received the support of the House of Lords. Longing to force the government to resign, Fox proposed a motion for an address for the removal of ministers on 1 March which was passed by a vote of 201 to 189, and a further and more strongly worded motion on 8 March which was passed by 191 to 190.[6] Fox thereafter declined to push motions, as his base continued to crumble. Despite these series of defeats in the House of Commons, Pitt resolutely remained in office, watching the Opposition's majority shrink.[8]

Pitt, meanwhile, decided to go to the country and advised the King to dissolve the Parliament, which the King did on 25 March. The ensuing election left Pitt's government a safe majority in the House of Commons. This was the first time that a Prime Minister avoided resignation by asking for a dissolution of Parliament and created an important precedent for future political practices.

Defeat of the Wellington ministry[edit]

1st Duke of Wellington (pictured) served kings George IV and William IV respectively from 1828 to 1830. He reassumed the premiership in a caretaker capacity in November 1834, serving until that December.

The 1830 vote of no confidence in the government of the Duke of Wellington occurred in November 1830 when a government motion over a financial question was defeated in the House of Commons.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in January 1828. By late 1830, the support for his government in Parliament was crumbling: the government's policy of Catholic emancipation (via the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829) split the Tory Party, and the political and popular pressure for parliamentary reform grew rapidly against the government's will.

On 15 November 1830, Chancellor of the Exchequer Henry Goulburn proposed a motion in the House of Commons that the House go into a committee to consider the Civil List for 1831. Sir Henry Parnell, a Whig MP, proposed conversely an inquiry into the details of the Civil List before it went into the committee. The original motion of the Chancellor was then vetoed by a vote of 204 to 233 in the House.[9] Surprised by the unexpected defeat, Wellington submitted his resignation on the next day. The King invited Whig leader Lord Grey to form a government which was to propose the Great Reform Act of 1832.

Motion and vote
Yes votes 204
No votes 233

Defeat of the Peel ministries[edit]

Robert Peel (pictured) served King William IV and Queen Victoria from 1834 to 1835 and 1841 to 1846 respectively.

First Peel defeat[edit]

The 1835 vote of no confidence in the government of Sir Robert Peel occurred in April 1835 when the House of Commons passed a report against the government's will.

Sir Robert Peel became Prime Minister in December 1834. However, his party formed only a minority in the House of Commons. The following general election did not change this situation, which left the Conservative Party over 100 seats shorter than the Whigs in the House of Commons. Peel's government was unable to implement most of its policies. On 7 April, Ralph Bernal, a Whig MP, brought up a Report of the Committee of the House on the Church of Ireland. The Report was passed in the House of Commons against the government's will by a vote of 285 to 258.[10] Peel resigned on the next day and the King invited Whig leader Lord Melbourne to become Prime Minister and form a government.

Motion and vote
Yes votes 285
No votes 258

Second Peel defeat[edit]

The 1846 vote of no confidence in the government of Sir Robert Peel occurred in June 1846 when the House of Commons defeated a government bill.

Sir Robert Peel became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for a second time in August 1841. In order to relieve the suffering caused by the Great Famine in Ireland, he decided in 1845 to repeal the Corn Laws which were passed in 1815 to protect British agricultural production by restrictions on grain imports. This policy caused a split in the Conservative Party between the free-traders led by Peel and the protectionists led by Lord Derby, Lord George Bentinck and Benjamin Disraeli. On 15 May 1846, Peel's Bill of Repeal (officially titled Corn Importation Bill) was passed in the House of Commons with the support of the Whigs and the Radicals.[11]

The Protection of Life (Ireland) Bill (or "Coercion Bill") was introduced by the government in March 1846 to deal with the turbulences on the island, and was regarded by Peel's opponents as an opportunity to oust him. On 25 June, the same day when the Bill of Repeal was passed in the House of Lords,[12] the Coercion Bill was defeated in the House of Commons on its second reading by a combination of Conservative protectionists, Whigs and Radicals. The vote was 219 to 292.[13]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 219
No votes 292

Peel's government resigned on 27 June, and Lord John Russell formed a Whig government. Lord Stanley became the Leader of the Conservative Party. The Conservative free-traders, including Lord Aberdeen and William Ewart Gladstone, followed Peel to form a distinct faction called 'the Peelites'. They merged with the Whigs, the Radicals and the Independent Irish Party in 1859 to form the Liberal Party.

Defeats of the second Melbourne ministry[edit]

2nd Viscount Melbourne (pictured) served Queen Victoria from 1835 to 1841. He previously served King William IV from July to November 1834.

First Melbourne defeat[edit]

The first vote of no confidence in the government of Lord Melbourne occurred in June 1841.

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne became Prime Minister in April 1835. On 27 May 1841, Sir Robert Peel, leader of the Conservative Party, introduced in the House of Commons a motion of no confidence against the Melbourne government.[14] After five days of debate, the motion was carried in the House by a vote of 312 to 311 on 4 June.[15] Melbourne then asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament, which she did on 23 June. The Whig Party lost 70-odd seats in the following general election, and the government was defeated in a further vote of no confidence on 27 August.[16]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 312
No votes 311

Second Melbourne defeat[edit]

The second vote of no confidence in the government of Lord Melbourne occurred in August 1841.

The Queen opened the new Parliament on 24 August. On the same day, Conservative MP John Stuart-Wortley proposed in the House of Commons an amendment to the House's address in answer to the Queen's Speech, which claimed that the government no longer possessed the confidence of Parliament.[17] Lord Ripon, a former Prime Minister, proposed the same amendment in the House of Lords.[18] After four days of debate, the House of Commons voted on 27 August on the question whether the proposed amendment should be left out of the address. The question was vetoed by a vote of 269 to 360 and Wortley's amendment was added to the address.[16] This was the second time for a Melbourne government to lose a vote of confidence in the same year. He resigned on 30 August, and the Queen invited Conservative leader Robert Peel to become Prime Minister and form a government.

Motion and vote
Yes votes 269
No votes 360

Defeat of the Russell ministries[edit]

Lord John Russell (pictured) (later the Earl Russell) served Queen Victoria from 1846 to 1852 and 1865 to 1866.

First ministry[edit]

First Russell defeat[edit]

The 1851 vote of no confidence in the government of Lord John Russell occurred in February 1851 when a motion of enfranchisement was carried in the House of Commons against the government's will.

Lord John Russell became Prime Minister in June 1846. During Russell's premiership, the Whig Party only formed a minority in the House of Commons. The government relied on the implicit support of the Peelites led by Sir Robert Peel, and its support in Parliament was weak.

On 20 February 1851, Whig MP Peter King brought a motion in the House of Commons to "make the franchise in counties in England and Wales the same as that in boroughs, by giving the right of voting to all occupiers of tenements of the annual value of £10." This would make the county franchise the same as the borough franchise set in Reform Act of 1832. The government's view, however, was against further expansion of the electorate. Trying to avoid a defeat, Russell promised in the debate to bring in official measures of reform, but the Bill was passed anyway on its first reading by a vote of 100 to 52 (but defeated on the second reading).[19]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 100
No votes 52

Russell regarded the defeat as a vote of no confidence and submitted his resignation on 22 February. However, neither the Tories nor the Peelites was able to form a government, and the ministry resumed office on 3 March.[20] As a result, Russell committed himself to further Parliamentary reforms and brought in several Reform Bills from 1852 to 1866.[21] These efforts would finally lead to the passage of Reform Act of 1867.

Second Russell defeat[edit]

The 1852 vote of no confidence in the government of Lord John Russell occurred in February 1852 when the government was defeated on a bill in the House of Commons.

As the Whig Party only formed a minority in the House of Commons, the support for the government was weak. Russell's government had been defeated on a vote of no confidence in the previous year but resumed power shortly afterwards.

In December 1851, Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston clashed with Russell and the Prince Consort over foreign policies. Forced to resign, Palmerston returned to the backbenches but was determined to bring down the Russell government. On 20 February 1852, Russell brought a Bill in the House of Commons to amend the Local Militia. Palmerston, however, spoke against the phrase "Local Militia" and proposed that the word "local" should be left out of the Bill's title. A debate between the government and its opponents followed over such trivial matters. The House then voted on the question that "the word 'local' stand part of the question", and the government was defeated by an avote of 125 to 136.[22] Russell resigned on the next day and Queen Victoria asked Conservative leader Lord Derby to form a minority government.

Motion and vote
Yes votes 125
No votes 136

Second ministry[edit]

Third Russell defeat[edit]

The 1866 vote of no confidence in the government of Lord Russell occurred when the government of John Russell, 1st Earl Russell was defeated on Parliamentary reform proposals on 18 June 1866.[23]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 315
No votes 304

Defeat of the Derby ministries[edit]

14th Earl of Derby (pictured) served Queen Victoria from February to December 1852 and 1858 and 1859. He later served from 1866 to 1868.

First ministry[edit]

First Derby defeat[edit]

The 1852 vote of no confidence in the government of Lord Derby occurred in December 1852 when the government's budget was vetoed in the House of Commons.

Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby became Prime Minister in February 1852. During his premiership, the Conservative Party only formed a minority in the House of Commons due to the split of the Peelites. The general election in July did not strengthen the position of the government whose support in the House was weak.

On 3 December 1852, Chancellor of the Exchequer Benjamin Disraeli proposed the Budget for the financial year of 1853–54, in which he increased the house tax.[24] It was fiercely attacked by the Whigs and the Peelites. On 16 December 1852, after four days of debates, the House voted on the Budget in committee, and the Budget was vetoed by a vote of 286 to 305.[25]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 286
No votes 305

As a result, the government resigned on next day. Under the leadership of Lord Aberdeen, the Whigs and the Peelites formed a coalition and the first majority government since 1846.

Second ministry[edit]

Second Derby defeat[edit]

The 1859 vote of no confidence in the government of Lord Derby occurred in June 1859.

Conservative seats increased in the 1859 general election, but the Opposition still held a majority in the House. On 6 June, leading Whigs, Peelites, Radicals and members of the Independent Irish Party met and agreed to officially establish the modern Liberal Party.

On 7 June, the new Parliament was opened by the Queen. On the same day, in the debate in the House of Commons on the House's address in answer to the Queen's Speech, Whig MP Robert Culling Hanbury proposed an amendment to the address which claimed that the government no longer possessed the confidence of the Parliament.[26] After three days of debate, the House voted on the amendment on 10 June and passed it by 323 to 310.[27]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 323
No votes 310

As a result, Derby resigned on 11 June, and Lord Palmerston was invited to form the first Liberal government.

Defeat of the Aberdeen ministry[edit]

4th Earl of Aberdeen (pictured) served Queen Victoria from 1852 to 1855.

The 1855 vote of no confidence in the government of Lord Aberdeen occurred in January 1855 when the House of Commons voted in favour of an investigation of the alleged mismanagement during the Crimean War.

George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen became Prime Minister in December 1852 and formed a coalition government of Peelites and Whigs. In October 1853, the Crimean War broke out between the Ottoman Empire and Russia, and Britain and France declared war on the latter on 28 March 1854. The Allied Forces set a siege to Russian port Sevastopol in October. However, the British war effort was marked by gross mismanagement, and the death rates were very high. Public opinion turned hostile against the government.

On 26 January 1855, John Arthur Roebuck, a non-partisan MP, proposed in the House of Commons to appoint a select committee to inquire into the condition of the British Army and into the government's conduct of war administration.[28] After two days of debate, the motion was carried on 29 January in the House by a vote of 305 to 148.[29]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 305
No votes 148

Lord Aberdeen saw this huge defeat as a sign of no-confidence, and the government resigned on the next day. Lord Palmerston formed a government on 6 February.

Defeat of the first Palmerston ministry[edit]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 215
No votes 234

Defeat of the Gladstone ministries[edit]

William Ewart Gladstone (pictured) served Queen Victoria between 1868 and 1886 (interrupted by the Disraeli and Salisbury premierships in 1874–80 and 1885–86). He reassumed the premiership in 1892 and served until 1894.

First ministry[edit]

First Gladstone defeat[edit]

The 1873 vote of no confidence in the government of William Ewart Gladstone occurred in March 1873 when a government bill on university education in Ireland was vetoed in the House of Commons.

William Ewart Gladstone became Prime Minister in December 1868. His premiership was marked by series of political and social reforms. In February 1873, the government brought in University Education (Ireland) Bill, which proposed to make the Catholic University of Ireland, the Presbyterian Magee College and the colleges of the secular Queen's University of Ireland parts of the University of Dublin, and which abolished all religious requirements in these colleges as well as in the Trinity College.[30]

On 3 March, Gladstone proposed in the House of Commons for the second reading of the Bill.[31] After 4 days of debate, the House voted on the Bill on 11 March, and the government was defeated by a vote of 284 to 287.[32]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 284
No votes 287

Gladstone saw this close loss as a vote of no-confidence and submitted his resignation on 13 March. However, the Liberal Party held the majority in the House, and Benjamin Disraeli refused to form a minority Conservative government. Gladstone's cabinet therefore resumed on 19 March.

Second ministry[edit]

Second Gladstone defeat[edit]

The 1885 vote of no confidence in the government of William Ewart Gladstone occurred on 8 June 1885 when Gladstone's budget was defeated.[33] Gladstone resigned from office on 9 June 1885.[34]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 252
No votes 264

Third ministry[edit]

Third Gladstone defeat[edit]

The 1886 vote of no confidence in the government of William Ewart Gladstone occurred when Parliament rejected the government's Ireland Bill. The Bill was treated as a confidence vote and Gladstone resigned immediately after.[35]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 311
No votes 341

Defeat of the Salisbury ministries[edit]

3rd Marquess of Salisbury (pictured) served Queen Victoria between 1885 and 1892 (interrupted only by Gladstone's third premiership of 1886). He reassumed the premiership in 1895 and served until 1902 under King Edward VII.

First ministry[edit]

First Salisbury defeat[edit]

The 1886 vote of no confidence in the government of Lord Salisbury was a vote of no confidence in the Conservative government led by Salisbury, which was passed on the night of 26 January 1886.

The government had taken over in June 1885 after the Liberal government led by William Ewart Gladstone had resigned following a defeat on the budget. The government lacked a majority, but was not able to immediately dissolve as the changes to the franchise and constituency boundaries in the Reform Act had not yet become law.

In November, the necessary legal procedures were complete, and the government dissolved Parliament, precipitating a general election. Although the Conservatives were beaten, no party had a majority. The Conservatives had courted the Irish vote in 1885, and it was not plain the Irish Nationalists would back the Liberals. Salisbury did not resign and waited to meet Parliament. However, in the meantime the Hawarden Kite made it clear Gladstone would back Irish Home Rule.

Having waited to meet Parliament in the New Year, the Salisbury government brought in a Queen's Speech. On 26 January, Jesse Collings, Liberal MP for Ipswich moved an amendment "expressing 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."[36] This was known as the "Three Acres and a Cow" amendment.

The amendment was carried by 329 votes to 250, and Salisbury subsequently resigned. Gladstone became Prime Minister again on 1 February.

Motion and vote
Yes votes 329
No votes 250

Second ministry[edit]

Second Salisbury defeat[edit]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 350
No votes 310

Defeat of the Rosebery ministry[edit]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 132
No votes 125

Defeat of the first Baldwin ministry[edit]

Stanley Baldwin (pictured) served King George V from 1923 to January 1924. He later served from November 1924 to 1929 and from 1935 to 1937, the latter during the abdication crisis (under kings George V, Edward VIII and George VI respectively).

The 1924 vote of no confidence in the government of Stanley Baldwin was a vote of no confidence against Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin. After an election in December 1923, the Conservative Party did not have the majority it needed to form a government, allowing Labour and the Liberals to pass the vote.[37] After Baldwin's resignation, Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority government and became the first Labour prime minister.[38]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 328
No votes 251

The motion moved by J. R. Clynes MP was:

"That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, as followeth:—
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
But it is our duty respectfully to submit to your Majesty that Your Majesty's present advisers have not the confidence of this House."[39]

Defeat of the first MacDonald ministry[edit]

Ramsay MacDonald (pictured) served King George V from January to November 1924. He later served from 1929 to 1935.

The 1924 vote of no confidence in the government of Ramsay MacDonald was a vote of censure against the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald as a consequence of the withdrawal of proceedings by His Majesty's Attorney General Sir Patrick Hastings MP in the Campbell Case. It was one of only three votes of confidence lost by a government in the 20th century.[40]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 364
No votes 198

Although the actual motion of censure moved by Sir Robert Horne MP in the terms "That the conduct of His Majesty's Government in relation to the institution and subsequent withdrawal of criminal proceedings against the editor of the 'Workers' Weekly' is deserving of the censure of this House" was expressly rejected by 198 votes to 359, an alternative motion proposed by Sir John Simon MP "That a Select Committee be appointed to investigate and report upon the circumstances leading up to the withdrawal of the proceedings recently instituted by the Director of Public Prosecutions against Mr. Campbell" was passed by 364 to 198.[41] The government however, had made clear that they regarded both motions as votes of confidence[42] and thus MacDonald requested and obtained a dissolution on the following day.

Aftermath[edit]

The consequence of the vote was the third general election in three years. Dominated by the publication of the infamous Zinoviev letter shortly before polling day and scares over Labour connections with Bolshevik Russia, the Conservatives were returned to power with a majority of 208. They remained in office for the duration of the next Parliament. However, this spectacular success was predominantly at the expense of the Liberals who lost 118 seats rather than Labour. The latter lost only 40 seats and gained a million new votes compared to 1923. Thus the long-term consequence of the vote was the permanent supersession of the Liberals by Labour as the Official Opposition to Baldwin's Conservatives.

Defeat of the Callaghan ministry[edit]

Motion and vote
Yes votes 311
No votes 310

References[edit]

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  39. ^ "Debate on the Address.". Hansard. 169: col. 532. 21 January 1924. 
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