What if ... 1974 had hung differently

With commentators beside themselves at the prospect of a hung parliament in May, many have raised the spectre of the February 1974 election, when Ted Heath asked voters to choose between the government and the miners. But surprisingly few have reminded their readers of what happened next: the extraordinary story of Britain's only postwar coalition.

On Saturday 2 March, two days after the election, Jeremy Thorpe began his journey towards political infamy. Early that morning, the debonair Liberal leader left his home in North Devon and caught a train to London, where he met Heath in Downing Street. With nearly 20 per cent of the vote but only 14 seats, Thorpe had become a kingmaker, and that afternoon he and Heath hammered out the details of their coalition.

To Thorpe's surprise, Heath acceded to all his wishes, including a commission on proportional representation and two cabinet seats for the Liberals. By Monday the deal was done: Thorpe became home secretary, his colleague Cyril Smith secretary of state for food and prices. Many right-wing Tories were outraged, and the Labour leader Harold Wilson, whose party had won four more seats than Heath's, took to the airwaves in protest. But it was no good: between them, Heath and Thorpe had a majority.

Wilson, however, had an ace up his sleeve. During the 1960s, he had learned from MI5 of a bizarre series of allegations linking Thorpe with a stable-boy called Norman Scott. Just a few days after the government was formed, the Labour leader struck, leaking the information to the Daily Mirror.

It was a supremely cynical ploy - but it worked. Ten days after taking office, Thorpe resigned, dealing a stunning blow to Heath's hopes of staying in office.

As the pound plunged on the international markets, he asked the Queen for another dissolution, but in a rare flash of royal stubbornness, she turned him down. Wilson was prime minister again; but now the atmosphere was poisonous. Every day, there were new allegations in the Daily Mail about his finances. After barely a week he, too, threw in the towel.

And so Britain ushered in its third prime minister in barely a week. But this time, not even his fiercest enemies could doubt his integrity. It was an astonishing irony: a race that had begun with Heath, Thorpe and Wilson jockeying for office ended with Michael Foot lugging his beloved books into No 10 - and the longest premiership in modern history was under way.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!