Page last updated at 14:48 GMT, Saturday, 31 October 2009

28 March 1979: Foot's finest hour

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House of Commons

The Labour government, again facing a confidence vote, fielded Commons Leader Michael Foot to wrap up the debate and make a last gasp pitch for the support of wavering MPs.

Despite this coruscating contribution, which had a packed House of Commons oscillating between enraptured silence and howls of laughter, Labour lost the vote by a majority of one.

The government knew it was fighting for its life, and that the support of minority parties would be crucial for its survival.

Mr Foot referred to the contribution of Gerry Fitt, the left-leaning SDLP MP for Belfast West, who had vowed both to vote against the government and then to campaign for its re-election.

Mr Foot then tried to undermine the logic of Donald Stewart, MP for the Western Isles and leader of the Scottish National Party's parliamentary group, who had declared that all 11 SNP MPs would vote against the government - despite the pro-devolution stance of senior ministers.

Since the Conservatives were vehemently opposed to devolution, PM Jim Callaghan had earlier likened the SNP to "turkeys voting for Christmas".

But perhaps Mr Foot's most memorable comments were saved up for the relationship between David Steel, then leader of the Liberal Party, and opposition leader Margaret Thatcher ("the honourable lady", in Mr Foot's speech).

Uproar in the chamber greeted his observation that Mr Steel had "passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever".

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