Walter Harrison never became a departmental minister. Within two years of his arrival at Westminster in 1964, he found his natural home in the Labour whips' office and remained there for the rest of his frontbench career.

But in the years that followed his retirement in 1987, few Labour politicians of the Wilson-Callaghan era were spoken of with such awe by their one-time colleagues. As deputy chief whip in the late 1970s, Harrison was the unsung hero of a series of knife-edge votes in which Jim Callaghan's minority government just managed to scrape home.

Inevitably, he developed a reputation as something of hardman and practitioner of the parliamentary black arts - but the defining incident of his career displayed a rather softer side to his nature.

In March 1979, Harrison found himself on the horns of one of the most excruciating - and much-mythologised - dilemmas in recent political history. Should he attempt to wheel a dying Labour MP into the division lobbies to save the government's majority on a vote of no confidence and prevent a general election which they looked certain to lose?

The MP in question, Sir Alfred Broughton, had been gravely ill for some time and had been warned by doctors that he may well not survive the journey to Westminster from his Yorkshire constituency. Sir Alfred had been determined to do what he saw as his duty by the government. But at 1.20pm on the day of the vote, and after extensive discussions with the stricken MP's family, Harrison took the fateful decision not to summon him.

The rest, as they say, is history. The government lost by one vote, the election took place in May, and Margaret Thatcher's victory ushered in 18 years of Tory rule. In light of the historical repercussions, some senior Labour figures - including the then cabinet minister Roy Hattersley - have since questioned whether the right decision was made. But Harrison still cherishes a letter which he received from Callaghan telling him that he "did the right thing" on vote of confidence day. He remained an MP for two more terms, holding his Wakefield constituency at the Tory high watermark election of 1983 by just 360 votes.

A foreman electrician by trade, Walter Harrison was born in Dewsbury in 1921 and served with the Royal Air Force in World War II prior to embarking on his political career. Now approaching his 90th birthday, his last major public appearance was in 2003 when he was given the honour of the freedom of the City of Wakefield. He said at the time: "I am delighted and honoured to be given the freedom of the city which I love so much. It is fitting the ceremony is taking place in County Hall, a magnificent building which belongs to the people of Wakefield."

He now lives quietly in Sandal Magna, a village two miles to the south of the city he represented in Parliament for 23 years.

Tags: Issue 28, Paul Linford, Walter Harrison, Where are they now?