1974 March 1-4: Heath's attempt to form a coalition with the Liberals
Following the General Election of February 1974, Prime Minister Edward Heath found himself deprived of his Parliamentary majority. The Conservatives won the largest share of the vote, but a handful of seats fewer than Labour. (Parliament was "hung": no party held a majority.) A file (PREM 15/2069) tells the story of his attempt to remain in power by forming a coalition with the Liberal Party, led by Jeremy Thorpe.
It was the first time since the 1930s that a peacetime coalition government had been seriously discussed. Officials carefully recorded the outcome, although a key document - Robert Armstrong's 'chronicle' of the whole episode - had strayed from the file released in January 2005. Following a Freedom of Information request from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, the missing item was found in one of Harold Wilson's files (PREM 16/231) and is now being released for the first time.
Robert Armstrong was Heath's closest official adviser - the head of his Private Office - and a man in considerable sympathy with the outgoing Prime Minister. He was also the government's chief contact with Buckingham Palace, keeping the Queen in touch with the coalition talks (through her Private Secretary, Sir Martin Charteris) and exploring the role she might be called upon to play. Understandably these were stressful times for Armstrong. At one point he admits struggling to hold back tears.
The Armstrong memorandum confirms the consensus at the time that there was little to no prospect of success for the Coalition talks. The Liberals demanded that the Conservatives commit themselves to electoral reform as the price of an arrangement. The most the Conservatives would offer was an inquiry into the matter, with a remit to report quickly. Although lesser differences between the parties might have been finessed (whether Heath should stay as Prime Minister, whether the Liberals would enter the Government or support it from outside), electoral reform was a very large obstacle.
And even if a Conservative-Liberal agreement had been reached, the combined strength of the two parties was too small to give them an effective majority. Other minor parties would have had to be involved in some fashion.
Although the negotiations failed, it could be argued that they had some political value for the Conservatives. Heath probably hoped that talking to Jeremy Thorpe would help him win back Liberal voters - many of whom had defected from the Conservatives - by showing that Liberal leaders bore final responsibility for the replacement of a Conservative Government by a Labour one. This display of sweet reasonableness was the first step Heath took towards the notion of a "Government of National Unity", the centrepiece of his campaign during the October 1974 election.