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Last Updated: Friday, 29 December 2006, 00:12 GMT
A prime minister's guide to quitting
1976 government papers
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Harold Wilson
Harold Wilson went in the manner of his choosing
How does a prime minister resign? With the UK preparing for a handover from Tony Blair to a successor during 2007, newly released papers show how it was done when Labour was last in power.

Cabinet documents from 1976 include a carefully typed and scripted timetable showing the hour-by-hour schedule of Harold Wilson's decision to resign as PM on 16 March that year.

The decision stunned the nation and the Cabinet, although Wilson insisted he had been planning to go for some time.

The papers, made public in the National Archives, show that the resignation process for Harold Wilson began with informing Buckingham Palace and ended with his speaking to his party.

Trip to the palace

In the carefully-typed notes, the resignation started with a telephone call to Sir Martin Charteris, private secretary to the Queen, requesting an audience to formally tender a resignation the following day. The second person to officially hear was Sir John Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service.

The Queen
Cabinet Secretary
Foreign Secretary
Chancellor of the Exchequer
The Cabinet
The media/public
The unions
The Bank of England
The Opposition
While Wilson prepared to see the monarch, the wheels continued to turn. The draft resignation statement, to be read to Cabinet and given to the press, was revised.

Its final wording was forwarded to Sir Martin at the palace for the Queen to see. Inside Number 10, Sir John Hunt was also allowed to read it ahead of time.

Twenty-four copies were typed up for the Cabinet and addressed personally to ministers. Telegrams were prepared for overseas posts and personal messages readied for US President Gerald Ford and the other leaders of the then European Economic Community.

The resignation itself began with Marcia Williams (later Lady Falkender), Harold Wilson's political secretary, leading his office team in requesting early meetings with Foreign Secretary James Callaghan and Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey and putting other wheels in motion.

Mr Wilson was at the palace seeing the Queen while these senior cabinet ministers arrived at Downing Street.

They were told just before the 11am cabinet meeting. Then, as the prime minister finished telling the rest of his colleagues that he was going, his press secretary began briefing the media.

Unions then bank

At the same time, three of the biggest names in the Labour movement were asked to wait to see the PM - Ron Hayward, general secretary of the party, Len Murray of the Trades Union Congress and Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

This is an office to cherish; stimulating and satisfying - you will never have a dull moment, you will never get bored
Harold Wilson's resignation message to his successor

Only then were letters despatched to the governor of the Bank of England, leader of the opposition Margaret Thatcher, the Speaker of the House of Commons and other political leaders.

The news was public by 11.30am and the resignation press conference arranged for 4pm. Harold Wilson squeezed in a call to Mrs Thatcher before sitting down to a spot of lunch and planning what to say at the press conference.

Harold Wilson's final meeting of the day was with the party's MPs in Parliament.

And after that, with the leadership contest launched, there was very little else for him to do other than read the telegrams from world leaders.

Amid expressions of regret and best wishes for the future was an offer that he was unlikely ever to take up.

Idi Amin of Uganda, a constant thorn in the side of the British government, declared he was shocked to hear Wilson was going. He had been such a decent fellow compared with Edward Heath, read the telegram. Perhaps he would like to come for a relaxing retirement holiday at the dictator's pleasure?


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