The vote of John Baron, the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay, against military action in Libya was an unusual thing. As we noted in an earlier post, it is relatively rare to see Conservative backbench rebellions against military action. But not unprecedented. In 2003, in addition to the massive revolt of 139 Labour MPs against military action, there was also a smaller Conservative revolt, of some 16 MPs. John Baron can at least claim consistency, because he was one of those 16. But still, before Iraq, it is difficult to find Conservative dissenting votes against British military action.
Before 2003, the last Conservative MP to rebel against British military action was Sir Anthony Meyer. He was the only Conservative MP to vote against the whip on 16 April 1986, in order to vote against the American bombing of… Libya! He was joined by nine other Conservative MPs who abstained, including the former Prime Minister Edward Heath. Anyone reading Hansard for the critical speeches of Heath (c. 891), plus Hugh Dykes (c. 895), Sir Ian Gilmour (c. 919), and Dennis Walters (c. 942) will find much in common with yesterday’s debate. (Meyer had previously also objected to the Falklands war, although he voted with the Government on the crucial vote May 1982).
If anything, it is more common to see Conservative backbench rebellions when they think their government is not being quite strong enough. For example, in October 1973 17 pro-Israeli Conservative MPs voted against Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s decision to impose an arms embargo on both sides during the Yom Kippur War. Or take the rebellion of the-called Suez Group on 29 July 1954, opposing the removal of British military base from the Suez Canal. Julian Amery declared that the Agreement was a virtually unconditional surrender of the Canal Zone, and he and 26 other Conservative MPs defied the whip to vote against the Government in what was to be the largest rebellion by government MPs in the 1951 Parliament.