Letter: Graveyard of prime ministers

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Sir: John Major is mistaken if, as Andrew Marr says (11 June), he "has commented privately that he may be the first British premier to be ousted by the Irish question since William Gladstone". Ireland was responsible for ousting two British prime ministers in the 1970s.

In the February 1974 general election, Labour attained 301 seats, while Heath's Conservatives got 296.If the Ulster Unionists had not broken away from the Conservatives (whose whip they had been taking) during the preceding parliament, their 11 seats would have brought Heath's total to 307. He would have been better placed than Labour to form a minority government, and would have been a much more attractive coalition partner for the Liberals (who turned down Heath's proposal for a coalition), since their 14 seats plus Heath's 307 would have been enough for a majority in the 635-seat House of Commons.

In the confidence vote on 28 March 1979, James Callaghan was defeated by a single vote. Gerry Fitt, MP for Belfast West, made a speech in the debate explaining why, for reasons relating to Ireland, he would be abstaining in the division. Frank Maguire, independent MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, followed Fitt's example and also abstained. If either one, let alone both, had voted with Labour, Callaghan would have survived. Ireland precipitated a general election and the consequent Conservative victory that led to 17 years of Labour in opposition.


(Manchester Gorton, Lab)

House of Commons

London SW1