Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Tuesday, 31 March 2009 15:08 UK

The Night the Government Fell

Thirty years ago, on 28 March 1979, James Callaghan's Labour government lost a confidence motion by one vote and was forced to call an early General Election that would sweep Margaret Thatcher to power.

BBC Parliament looks back at one of the most dramatic nights in Westminster history.

A Parliamentary Coup: The background

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Part one of the programme

A Parliamentary Coup: The devolution question

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Part two of the programme

A Parliamentary Coup: On the day

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Part three of the programme

A Parliamentary Coup: The crucial vote

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Part four of the programme

Archive recordings from the confidence debate

Margaret Thatcher

Then opposition leader Margaret Thatcher launched the confidence debate with a stinging attack on the government.

James Callaghan

The prime minister made a final bid to persuade the minority parties to back the government, comparing them in his speech to "turkeys voting for an early Christmas".

David Steel

Then leader of the Liberal Party David Steel delivered a speech setting out the reasons why he no longer supported the government.

Willie Whitelaw

Conservative MP Willie Whitelaw urged MPs to back the no-confidence motion to "bring to an end a disastrous government".

Michael Foot

Winding up the debate, then Commons leader Michael Foot made an outstanding speech in which Margaret Thatcher and David Steel were both memorably lampooned.

Background: The power of backbenchers in a hung Parliament

Turning Points: The 1979 Election

George Cunningham, a Labour MP from 1970-81, describes the context of the 1979 General Election in a lecture to the History of Parliament Trust.

He explains how backbench MPs were able to wield ever more influence as Callaghan's majority ebbed away.

Mr Cunningham himself was the architect of a key amendment to the government's devolution plans - an amendment which meant that a referendum result in favour of devolution in Scotland was ruled invalid because those voting yes constituted less than 40% of the electorate.

This cost Labour the vital support of all Scottish National Party MPs - with devastating consequences on the night of the confidence vote.


BBC Parliament is screening the 1979 election night broadcast in full from 0900 BST to 0000 BST on Bank Holiday Monday 4 May 2009.



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