In the middle of Prime Minister’s Questions today Sky News interrupted with the breaking news that Michael Foot, former leader of the Labour Party had died at the age of 98. In the public memory, I think most will remember him as the Donkey-jacketed* leader of the Labour party from 1980 to 1983. But he was far more than that.
He was the son of an MP and the brother of another MP and two lords. He was himself a staunch republican who turned down a peerage and other awards on several occasions. He was an MP from 1945 to 1992, when he retired from Parliament as Father of the House. Outside of Parliament, he was a successful author and journalist becoming editor of the Evening Standard in 1942 at the age of just 28.
A close friend and political ally of Nye Bevan, he was always on the left of the
Labour movement. Following the death of Bevan, Foot was elected as MP for Ebbw Vale in 1960. He clashed with Gaitskell after having the whip withdrawn but was invited to join the first cabinet of Harold Wilson. He turned this offer down and led the backbench, crushing opposing MPs with his soaring rhetoric and rapid wit. In Wilson’s 1974 cabinet, Foot accepted the role of Employment Secretary where he was responsible for the Health and Safety At Work Act. Foot became leader of Labour at the age of 67. This was after the 1979 defeat by Thatcher. He had to immediately contend with the split of the SDP as well as the Bennite left. Trying to hold the party together in the 1983 election was always going to be a monumental task.
After the infamous “longest suicide note in history” , Foot resigned and returned to campaigning from the backbenches. He was much-loved by both Parliamentarians and the grassroots of the Labour party and was also a founder member of the CND, in which he remained active all his life. He continued to write, producing critically acclaimed biographies of Nye Bevan, Harold Wilson and HG Wells as well as journalism and politicial pamphlets.
Outside his political achievements, Michael Foot also remains the oldest registered professional football player of all time, after his club Plymouth Argyle registered him as a player for his 90th birthday.
As well as that, he managed the much more difficult feat of being liked and respected by politicians from both sides of the house. A very rare thing indeed.*It was never a donkey jacket. It was in fact a duffel coat which the Queen Mother had complimented him on, though he never mentioned this to the right-wing press at the time.