In September 1978, Jim Callaghan had a big decision to make.
Having navigated Britain through one the most tumultuous and anarchic periods in modern history, he began to move clear of Margaret Thatcher in some opinion polls. Once more, he had managed an economic turnaround without a parliamentary majority, surviving day to day by the skin of his teeth.
Surely he would jump at the chance to win a solid majority for his government?
There was a problem. Callaghan studied the opinion polls extensively, and although he was ahead of Thatcher in personal ratings, there was still the possibility of another hung parliament. The stalemate between the two main parties meant there was never a good time to call an election.
This prospect, of another minority government, frightened Callaghan to death. He had been scarred and exhausted by the previous four years, with every single parliamentary vote on a knife edge.
He woke up each morning, not knowing if the day might be Labour’s last. For this reason, he decided to wait until the following May. That gamble would go down as ‘the biggest political miscalculation of all time’. Theresa May will carry that burden instead – for doing the exact opposite.
Against All Odds
The excellent play ‘This House’. based on the inner workings of the 74-79 parliament, summarises it as ‘an era of chaos, both hilarious and shocking, fist fights break out in the parliamentary bars, high-stake tricks and games are played, while sick or dying MPs are carried through the lobby to register their crucial votes as the government hangs by a thread’
Despite this, the government survived into a fifth year, remarkably becoming one of the longest parliaments of the post-war era.
It was the aftermath of Callaghan’s defeat that would destroy Labour, as they embarked on a period of self sabotage – leaving them out of power for a generation.
This is the daunting prospect facing the Tories now as Theresa May looks to navigate Britain through the choppy waters of Brexit, made all the harder by the self inflicted wounds of the general election last week.
For political junkies, we can only hope the next five years are as interesting as those portrayed in ‘This House’. Here is the definitive timeline of that era, which started with Labour’s resurgence, and ended with the slow birth of Thatcherism
Timeline – The Road To Thatcherism (1974-179)
October 1974: Labour win the general election, returned with a slim majority of three. Harold Wilson does not get the mandate he wanted, but is able to put a Queens Speech through parliament.
John Stonehouse, a former Labour Minister, goes missing on a business trip in America. The media report that he has drowned whilst swimming in the sea. His clothes are found in a pile on the beach. Labour’s majority is technically reduced to 2.
December 1974: John Stonehouse is found alive in Australia. It emerges that Stonehouse had intended to start a new life with his secretary, Shelia Buckley. Stonehouse is deported back to Britain and detained in Brixton Prison. He remains an MP during this time.
February 1975: Ted Heath is forced into a leadership election after having lost two general elections in 1974. The Tories had long wanted Keith Joseph as leader – but he is forced to rule himself out, after making controversial speech about poor people having too many children. Margaret Thatcher emerges from the field to become leader.
March 1975: William Hamling, the Labour MP for Woolwich West, dies and triggers an unwanted by-election.
June 1975: EEC Referendum – The Conservatives campaign for Remain, while the official Labour position is to Leave. Wilson manages to detach himself from the debate, but allows cabinet members a free vote. This results in the spectacle of ministers Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn going head to head on a TV debate
Woolwich West By-election, Labour lose the seat to the Tories, giving them a majority of one.
July 1975: Unemployment reaches 1 million
October 1975: Stonehouse returns to the commons to make a speech, in which he claims to have been in the middle of a mental health breakdown when he faked his death is Australia. He is still on bail.
Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe is caught up in a plot to murder his gay lover. Unfortunately for him, only the dog is shot.
January 1976: Disillusioned by the stagnation on a devolved Scottish Assembly Bill, Jim Sillars and John Robertson leave the Labour Party to form the Scottish Labour Party.
February 1976: The government win a vote on the Dock Work Regulation Bill.
March 1976: Shock as Harold Wilson resigns as Prime Minister
Jeremy Thorpe Case – During Andrew Newton’s trial for attempted murder, Norman Scott makes allegations that he was involved in a sexual relationship with Thorpe.
Callaghan becomes Prime Minister, defeating Michael Foot.
Labour MP Brian O’Malley, dies at the age of 46 from complications following brain surgery.
Stonehouse, resigns from the Labour Party leaving the government in a minority of one, just before his trail begins.
May 1976: Jeremy Thorpe resigns as leader of the Liberal Party. He denies Norman’s Scott’s allegations that they had a homosexual relationship
Historic Vote on the Aircraft and Shipping Bill descends into brutal disorder, ending with Heseltine picking up the Mace.
Labour are accused of breaking the pairing of MPs when they won by one vote. Tom Pendry who was supposed to be paired and absent, voted anyway. In protest, Michael Heseltine picked up the mace and brandished it at the government benches. Labour MPs had triggered disorder by singing ‘The Red Flag’. The Speaker suspended the sitting, but when it resumed, the House immediately adjourned.
The decision backfired on Labour, as the pairing system was suspended, making it difficult to win a vote.
June 1976: Margaret Thatcher proposes a vote of no confidence in the government. The government win the vote 309 votes to 290. Labour win the Rotherham by-election.
July 1976: Reg Prentice is deselected by his constituency labour party, which he claims has been infiltrated by the militant left. David Steel becomes the leader of the Liberal Party.
August 1976: Stonehouse is sentenced to seven years in jail. He finally resigns as an MP, triggering a by-election for Walsall North.
September 1976: Roy Jenkins steps down as an MP to take up the position of President of the European Commission. David Marquand, resigns his seat to become Jenkins advisor at the commission. This triggers 2 by-elections.
Labour approach the IMF for a loan of $3.9 billion. This is largest amount ever requested, as the IMF need to seek additional funds from the USA and Germany.
As a term of the agreement, the IMF negotiators demand heavy cuts in public expenditure. Healey’s proposals for a cut of 20 per cent in the budget deficit split the cabinet and embolden left wingers such as Tony Benn.
Unemployment reaches 1,588,000
November 1976: Labour lose Workington and Walsall South by-elections
December 1976: Reg Prentice resigns from the cabinet.
February 1977: The Scotland and Wales Bill is defeated in a commons vote by 312 votes to 283 votes. Death of Tony Crosland. Replaced by David Owen, who becomes Britain’s youngest foreign secretary since Eden, aged 38.
March 1977: Labour and the Liberal party make a pact. A deal is negotiated, whereby the Liberal’s agree to vote with the government in any subsequent motion of no confidence.
Labour face another vote of no confidence, triggered by defeat on the Scotland and Wales Bill. Labour survives by 322 votes to 298.
Margaret Thatcher accuses the Labour Government of having made a ‘shadowy deal’ with the Liberals to win the vote.
Roy Jenkins’ old seat is taken by the Tories in the Birmingham, Stechford by-election.
Healey’s Budget fails to fix the tax rates and allowance leading to the Rooker-Wise amendment. Thatcher claims it’s a survival budget for the Labour party – when “we need a survival budget for Britain”.
April 1977: Ashfield by-election. Held following the resignation of David Marquand, the Tories take a very safe Labour seat.
June 1977: Labour back benchers Rooker and Wise introduce the Rooker-Wise Amendment which is added to the budget after a Common’s vote. The Amendment is supported by the Conservative whip and results in an embarrassing defeat for the Labour government.
August 1977: Unemployment reaches a peak of 1,636,000
October 1977: Reg Prentice quits the Labour Party and joins the Tories. Then, Labour MP Joseph Harper dies while in office.
January 1978: Liberal assembly formally endorses the lib-lab pact.
March 1978: Callaghan tells his staff that he has a date in mind for the election – but will not reveal it yet.
August 1978: Jeremy Thorpe is charged with incitement to murder. He is accused of having hire Newton through an acquaintance to murder his former lover Scott.
September 1978: Lib-Lab pact collapses. Callaghan decides not to call a general election.
October 1978: Swing to Labour in Berwick and East Lothian by-election.
December 1978: Commons defeat for the government, on policy of sanctions against firms who break the 5% pay policy.
January 1979: Winter of Discontent begins, as lorry drivers go on strike. Jim Callaghan returns from Guadeloupe summit to headlines of ‘Crisis what Crisis?’
March 1979: Referendum on Scottish and Welsh devolution. The Scots vote yes to the creation of a Scottish Assembly by a small majority, but they do not secure the required 40% of the vote required to trigger devolution.
The Scottish Nationalists, unhappy with the outcome of the referendum, agree to support the Conservatives in a vote of no confidence in the government.
28 March 1979:
Vote of no confidence proposed by Margaret Thatcher.
In the run up to the vote, Labour’s Chief Whip had spoken to Alfred Broughton, MP for Batley, who was at home recovering from a heart attack. The whips thought that the journey from Yorkshire would kill Broughton. Callaghan, agreed that Broughton should not be summoned down for the vote.
Labour approached the Conservative Whip to obtain a pair for Broughton. He rejected it, claiming the pairing system does not apply for votes on confidence matters.
The Government lost by one vote. At first, the Conservatives thought that they had lost by two votes. It turned out they had forgot to include the two MPs who were doing the counting.
Callaghan immediately stood up and told the house “We shall take our case to the Country”.