Syria crisis: It’s usually the MPs who are gung-ho for going to war...

David Cameron is the first PM blocked by the legislature from embarking on a military adventure

There is no precedent in British history for Parliament preventing a Prime Minister from going to war. For Parliament even to want to prevent a war is rare enough: in more cases than not, when war clouds have loomed MPs have been gung-ho for military action – often more so than the ministers who faced the responsibility of sending young men to their deaths.

In the past, they could not avert a war even if they wanted, because the Government did not ask for their permission, but used the royal prerogative to declare, and informed Parliament after the die was cast.

On 3 September 1939, for example, a sombre House of Commons assembled at noon to be told by Neville Chamberlain that the UK had gone to war earlier that morning. There were 11 speeches, no vote, and the session was over in less than an hour.

It was Tony Blair who set the trap that ensnared David Cameron on Thursday night, when he called for a Commons vote before sending British troops into Iraq in 2003. He could take that risk because the opposition leader, Iain Duncan Smith, was wholly onside. Previously, Mr Blair launched a military action in Kosovo without asking Parliament’s permission.

But if Parliament has not previously been able to stop a government from going to war, it has been able to punish those who conduct a war badly. By the beginning of 1782, British Redcoats had suffered a series of defeat in America’s War of Independence. George III’s Tory Prime Minister, Lord North, persisted in believing the colonies could be brought to heel, but on 27 February 1782, General Henry Conway, a Whig MP and hero of the Seven Years’ War war, almost apologetically stood up to propose a resolution that “the further prosecution of the war on the continent of North America for the purpose of reducing the revolted colonies to obedience by force” was “preventing a happy reconciliation” with the Americans, and that only the French stood to gain if it continued.

He was supported by Edmund Burke, one of the greatest orators in parliamentary history, and William Wilberforce and others – but the resolution fell by 194 votes to 193. Nonetheless, the vote brought down Lord North, who resigned in March, and effectively ended the war.

The best-known example of the Commons sacking a war leader was the vote on 8 May 1940 which precipitated Neville Chamberlain’s resignation two days later – but even that assertion of parliamentary power was achieved by an arcane route. Chamberlain did not lose a vote on anything substantive.

Indeed, he did not lose any vote at all. The proposal was that “the House do now adjourn”, which was passed by 281 to 200. Chamberlain took note that 41 government MPs were among the 200 who voted against, and concluded that his time was up.

The Earl of Aberdeen, whose tenure as prime minister was one of the shortest in history, also felt the power of the Commons as reports of the charge of the Light Brigade and other blunders in the Crimean War filtered back. It was the first military campaign to be subjected to on-the-spot journalism, by William Howard Russell of The Times.

In January 1855, the Commons voted by 305-148 to hold an inquiry into the conduct of the campaign. Lord Aberdeen interpreted that as a vote of no confidence, and resigned. In those days, the convention was that if the prime minister could not command a majority in the Commons, he resigned. David Cameron can be thankful that tradition no longer applies.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'