Exactly 40 years ago, Alf Broughton was on his deathbed and central to a political drama. As a GP, he had served the mining communities of Yorkshire before becoming a Labour MP.
Government Whips, facing a no confidence vote, faced a dilemma. Would they call on him to be propelled by ambulance to the precincts of Westminster so he could be counted through the lobby?
The good doctor wanted to make one last sacrifice for the cause but his wife was against it. The Chief Whip, Walter Harrison, made the final call – not to request his attendance. The Labour Government fell by a single vote.
In the House of Commons, there was no such humane spirit. Mrs Thatcher led 279 Tories into the Lobby accompanied by 13 Liberals, 11 Scottish Nationalists and eight Ulster Unionists.
On the other side were every other Labour MP, three Welsh Nationalists, two Ulster Unionists and two from the breakaway SLP. Mrs Thatcher could not have won on her own.
At other times, this might just be a piece of anniversary-based history – albeit an essential one in understanding much that followed in Scottish and UK politics. To a remarkable extent, however, it also serves as a parable for our immediate times.
When the votes were tallied, it did not matter a toss why MPs of different persuasions were in the lobby with Mrs Thatcher. Only the outcome left its mark on history – and what a mark it was.
In exactly the same way, there is an imminent danger of MPs who claim to revile a particular outcome – leaving the EU without a deal – delivering exactly that catastrophe. Through obduracy or inadvertence, they are refusing to face up to the actual choice at hand.
Just as in 1979, MPs prepared to inflict such an outcome seek to absolve themselves of responsibility. It will all be Theresa May’s fault because she could not deliver what they wanted. Oh no, it won’t. Whatever the Prime Minister’s inadequacies, she will not be alone on the charge-sheet.
I heard Barry Gardiner, one of Labour’s more presentable spokespersons, being interviewed on the Today programme. It was put to him that the consequence of again voting against the deal might well be “no deal”. Was he prepared to risk that?
“Ah,” he advised John Humphrys sagely, “you are falling into the trap that the Prime Minister has set.” Einstein on discovering the relativity theory could not have sounded more pleased with himself for recognising a truth which remained obscure to lesser mortals.
Someone should advise Mr Gardiner that the point of identifying a trap is to avoid it. Yet Labour, along with other Opposition parties and their multifarious motivations, are on the point of walking into the most dangerous trap in post-war politics.
Exactly as in 1979, there is a force at work which knows exactly what the prize is and where it lies. Then it was Mrs Thatcher and her right-wing Tory followers. Now it is the hard-line Brexiteers who have never deviated from their objective.
They are potentially within days of crossing the line and seizing the prize of an abrupt, unconditional exit from the EU. Just as Mrs Thatcher could not have won her prize without the useful idiots who accompanied her into the Lobby neither can Johnson, Rees-Mogg and the rest of their gang.
The Dutch Prime Minister summed up the situation perfectly when he said: “It is time for British MPs to stop playing party political games and vote for the deal next week.” Of course that is what they should do, as the only certain way of stopping “no deal”.
There are various ploys still in play aimed at delay – referendum, General Election and so on – but time is running out. Pursuing them will be no alibi for shirking the actual choice which currently exists. At some point, MPs must make that call.
As the SNP found out in 1979, voters tend to be more interested in outcomes than pleas of wronged innocence. There will be no electoral rewards for voting in the arch-Brexiteer lobby, regardless of claimed motive.