Choreography of defeat: The fall of the 1979 Government

James Mitchell, Clifford Williamson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article reassesses the attempt by the Labour Government in 1979 to overcome challenges faced without an overall majority; the collapse of the Lib-Lab pact; internal party dissent; and referendum results on Scottish and Welsh devolution. The efforts to patch together a Parliamentary majority with other parties’ MPs while allaying opponents of devolution within the Parliamentary Labour Party ultimately failed. Although the chronology of the defeat is well established and has formed the basis of many studies of British political history, less well understood is the choreography of defeat, the sequence of discussions and negotiations with smaller parties and internal debates within the Government on how to respond to the results of the devolution referendums in Wales and Scotland held on March 1st 1979. Documents from the National Archive, including detailed accounts of the Prime Minister’s conversations and discussions with Cabinet colleagues and other party leaders, as well as an analysis of the decision-making process inside 10 Downing Street highlight the limited choices available to the Prime Minister. It shows the difficulties the Prime Minister had in assessing the likely behaviour of MPs from the smaller parties as well as his own. James Callaghan rejected proposals from his Deputy, Michael Foot to avert defeat preferring instead to avoid the possibility of dividing his party. This resulted in defeat in the no confidence vote that precipitated the general election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)342-365
Number of pages24
JournalParliamentary History
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2022


  • no confidence vote
  • devolution
  • Callaghan government
  • 1979 election


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