IN March 1979, there was a serious discussion about driving the dying Labour MP for Batley and Morley some 200 miles from Yorkshire to the House of Commons. Sir Alfred Broughton (below) was keen to come.

The National: Sir Alfred Broughton, the 76 year old Labour MP for Batley and Morley, who was absent for the vital no confidence vote brought against the government. He had been bedridden for three months and was said to have been very distressed that his missing vote

The context was the ­now-famous motion of no confidence which had been lodged in Jim Callaghan’s government ­after the first Scottish devolution ­referendum crashed into the qualified majority rules which had been inserted into the first ­Scotland Act.

This wrecking amendment provided that devolution would only come into effect if 40% of the whole ­electorate voted in favour – effectively stymieing ­progress on Scottish home rule for 20 years.

Having survived one confidence motion in December 1978, the minority Labour ­government found itself under renewed ­assault by a united opposition. The phrase “knife-edge” was coined for political ­moments like this. The Conservatives, the SNP and David Steel’s Liberal Party were all now in favour of a general election – leaving just a handful of Northern Irish MPs, capable of securing the UK ­Government’s tottering majority.

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Once human factors – including ­idiosyncratic individual preferences, ­personal pique, unpredictable party blocks, illness, drunkenness and random ­happenstance were factored in – the ­outcome was too close to call.

Every vote counted, and although “Doc” Broughton was deathly ill, he wanted to do his final duty to his party – even if that risked his premature death on the long ­ambulance ride down to London.

Although physically unfit to join his Labour colleagues in the division lobby, House of Commons arcana meant that Broughton’s vote of confidence in the ­government would still be counted – so long as he arrived bodily and alive within the “precincts” of the Palace of ­Westminster.

Lying on his back in an ambulance in the Speaker’s Court, his vote might have saved the Callaghan administration. But given the parlous state of his health, his ­doctors believed there was every chance the ­long-serving Labour backbencher – who’d represented his Yorkshire constituency for 30 years – would die en route.

In a very British combination of ­cynicism, comedy, and vintage ­constitutional ­piffle, government whips identified an ­opportunity in the “convention” that ­nobody dies in the Palace of Westminster – the Safety of Rwanda Act isn’t the first excursion British politics has made into ignoble fictions.

If Broughton expired en route, the ­Labour government might still be left one vote short. But if he shuffled off this ­mortal coil in the courtyard? They ­reckoned that confidence from the ­afterlife still counted – constitutionally speaking at least. What was proposed wasn’t so much a race against time – but a race against death – to get Broughton bodily into those sacred parliamentary precincts along with his ­irreplaceable vote of confidence.

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Eventually, the weighty decision was made to leave Doc Broughton to die in peace, which he did just days later on April 2, 1979. But this humane ­decision was a fateful one. Later that night, the Callaghan government lost the confidence vote by a single vote. The final tally was 311 to 310.

With Broughton’s horizontal support, this would have left the government and opposition eeksie-peeksie with 311 all, and as the Speakers cast their vote in favour of the status quo in the case of a tie, Callaghan’s government would have survived – at least for a while.

This is only one colourful story from this historic day – and the many slips between cup and lip that might have changed the course of British politics. And that’s not just a metaphor. As strikes in local ­catering services cut MPs off from their customary sources of ­nourishment and liquor on campus, drouthy MPs struck out in search of ­refreshment, ­giving party managers ­nightmares about ­over-refreshed colleagues ­clocking off, conking out or innocently ­boozing through the vote, deaf to the distant alarm of party managers about the majority slipping away from them.

Whips were assigned to patrol ­designated Westminster watering holes – unpeeling MPs from over-friendly lobby correspondents opening their ­expense accounts to ply them with drinks, ­dragooning over-refreshed colleagues back to parliament to make up the ­numbers.

In an echo of more recent experience with Brexit votes, Northern Irish politics made a significant impact. The Ulster Unionists – now including Enoch Powell – lobbied the Government to commit to an energy pipeline between the British mainland and Northern Ireland.

Some of his more worldly colleagues like Roy Hattersley were keen to buy them off if that was the price of survival – but ­Callaghan scornfully knocked the idea back, and with it, one sure route to a ­majority and his government’s ­survival. In the end, Hattersley’s efforts were enough to win two MPs over to the ­Government side – but not enough.

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On the other side of Northern Irish ­politics, Labour had managed to ­alienate potential republican allies in the ­Commons by appointing the hardline Roy Mason as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, including SDLP founder Gerry Fitt.

The independent republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Frank Maguire turned up in London causing considerable excitement, as his would-be Labour handlers tried to persuade him away from his intention to “abstain in person” on the motion.

The 1979 confidence vote remains part of political lore in Scotland as a sore point of history between Labour and the SNP – the “turkeys voting for an early ­Christmas”, as Callaghan ­memorably dubbed them – and the long era of ­Thatcherism the subsequent General Election ushered in.

But in a week where confidence votes and the prospect of government collapse have returned to Scottish politics, I wonder if it doesn’t have wider lessons and resonances. Lyndon B Johnson famously said the single most important skill for a politician is “the ability to count.” But that’s only part of the skillset. To survive in circumstances like this, you need grit and cunning as well as a good read on the people and an unsentimental assessment of the political interests at play.

Revisiting accounts of the time – febrile and dramatic as it was – it’s clear that many Labour insiders felt that Callaghan “lost his bottle” – that was John Smith’s phrase – and failed to demonstrate the ruthlessness needed to lead a minority government.

A harder man might have taken Broughton up on his offer and ­reckoned with his conscience later about the ­ethics of doing this to a dying man. But having a conscience has consequences. There was every reason for Labour ­politicians to feel squeamish about breaking bread with Enoch Powell.

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A more ­bargaining ­politician might have persuaded ­themselves that if a pipeline to Ulster was the price of doing business, then a ­pipeline to Ulster there should be – or at least the phantom prospect of one. Squeamishness has its consequences too.

For the Scottish Government, the magic number in Holyrood is theoretically 65 – a majority of MSPs. But like Callaghan’s whips, Humza Yousaf’s administration should be able to survive a confidence motion with 64 – assuming the Presiding Officer follows convention and breaks any tie in favour of the status quo.

The full coalition with the Greens ­always struck me as unnecessary – and therefore, a political mistake. Instead of allowing the intermittent venting of ­inevitable tensions and disagreements between the parties on specific policies without constant existential drama about what it meant for the future ­relationship, the strictures of the Bute House ­Agreement brought all these pressures into the heart of government all the time.

But having struck an unnecessary ­accord – the idea the First Minister could, as a gambit, rip it up without jeopardy – is comic self-deception. People get divorced amicably, sometimes. But the notion you could brief out the fact his Cabinet were banging their desks about evicting Greens from government and simultaneously think you could work up an ­immediate and constructive concord with the very people you’ve not only sacked but ­ostentatiously sacked is so chronically ridiculous it defies description.

People will notice, you know, if you boast about kicking them in the gusset while simultaneously extending the hand of friendship and an easy smile.

One imponderable query is how deep does the Scottish Green pique really go? And what is their calculation about the wider political costs? The same goes for Ash Regan. To vote for an early ­General Election on Alba’s current polling is to vote to make yourself unemployed.

The second is even more fundamental for the maths. Discussing the ill-health of politicians who haven’t gone public about their travails is – rightly – in bad taste. But much of the debate this week has assumed that all our MSPs are hale and hearty specimens who are ready to report for business when the confidence votes are called.

Albert Broughton’s story and all the horse-trading of 1979 should be a ­cautionary tale on the difference a single man’s fate can make.