How does May’s government compare to the seven before it?
Strikingly, this has been the ninth time Theresa May has been defeated in the Commons, with all nine defeats occurring since the start of September this year. If that trend is anything to go by, the number of defeats will stack up pretty quickly ahead of the next election, helping Labour on its march to power.
But is this many defeats unusual? Is the government unusually this bad at winning in the chamber?
The main thing to note is that most of the recent defeats have been on Opposition Day motions which have no real consequence, and for which the government’s strategy appears to be, “let’s just allow the opposition have its fun and move on.” This partly explains why it feels like there are so many defeats.
Secondly, the current administration is a minority one. The addition of the DUP gives them a slim majority, but the decision of just eleven Conservative MPs to vote with the opposition has resulted in a damaging result for the government.
A look back at history shows us that – unsurprisingly – non-majority arrangements result in significantly more government defeats that majority ones.
1. David Cameron
During the coalition years, which ensured a stable parliamentary majority, there were just six parliamentary defeats. In the year after Cameron won a majority, his government was defeated on three occasions.
Cameron’s total number of defeats in six years matches the number of defeats May has taken in four months.
2. Gordon Brown
The majority government of Gordon Brown was the largest majority Britain has seen in the past decade. During Brown’s three years in power, his government was defeated on just three occasions.
3. Tony Blair
Mr. Big Majority himself illustrates the relationship between majorities and government defeats. During ten years in power, Blair’s governments were defeated on just four occasions – all within a year’s period after the 2005 election.
4. John Major
In 1990, Major took over as PM from Margaret Thatcher with a reasonable majority. Two years later, he lost seats as Neil Kinnock’s “one last heave” failed to result in a massive payoff. Major’s administrations were defeated on just six occasions in the Commons.
5. Margaret Thatcher
Like Blair, Thatcher’s time in power shows the ability of majorities to shelter governments from defeats. Thatcher led the country for eleven years, but during that time she only suffered four losses.
6. James Callaghan
If this case is anything to go by, Theresa May is in for a rocky three years. In 1974 (October), Labour’s Harold Wilson won a slim majority (319-316). In 1976, Wilson stepped down and was replaced by James Callaghan. Then in 1977, a by-election loss led to Callaghan’s government losing its majority, resulting in the Lib-Lab pact which kept the government in place until Thatcher’s ascent to power. During Callaghan’s brief spell as PM, his government was defeated on 34 occasions.
7. Harold Wilson
Wilson’s second term in power from 1974-1976 was characterised by defeat due his government’s three seat majority. During Wilson’s two years, his administration was defeated 25 times.
So, are the latest government defeats unusual?
In one sense, May’s defeats are unusually common as we have been used to stable majority governments since 1979. However, an examination into the effects of majorities (and lack of) on government defeats reveals that defeat should be expected.
And more is yet to come.
A full list of government defeats can be accessed here.