The phrase which has been frequently used of Denis Healey who died at his home in Alfriston on Saturday is ‘the greatest leader the Labour Party/country never had’.
With his long service at Cabinet level including five years as Chancellor why did he fail to become Party Leader?
His first opportunity came in 1976 with Harold Wilson’s sudden resignation but he was essentially a lone operator and had not cultivated a following among MPs who alone elected the Leader in those days.
He duly lost to the avuncular Jim Callaghan (another Sussex retiree who farmed at Ringmer) coming a poor third to Michael Foot.
When the party leadership came up again in 1980 it was against a background of the 1979 election defeat and unpopular austerity measures (spending cuts and public sector pay restraint) and he was narrowly beaten by Michael Foot.
However his career did not ‘end in tears’ in Enoch Powell’s famous phrase as he narrowly defeated Tony Benn for the Deputy Leadership in 1981 by which time the electorate had been widened to include unions and party members as now.
This was a crucial turning point in the direction of the Labour Party and possibly his most enduring legacy along with his visceral loyalty to the Party when other moderate MPs joined the newly-created SDP.
While Michael Foot paid the price for the 1983 election defeat being replaced by Neil Kinnock, Denis Healey served as Shadow Foreign Secretary until 1987 and exchanged the House of Commons for the House of Lords in 1992.
His achievements and judgment are beyond doubt evidenced by uninterrupted terms as Defence Minister and Chancellor.
However his style was not collegiate, he did not set out a personal vision and shifted his position over Europe such that his support could never be relied upon.
While charming and witty in person his pugnacious style with Party colleagues and at Conference including several well-documented put-downs meant that he could never enjoy the personal support needed to attain the ultimate prize.
Anyone interested in his life and times should catch up on the BBC documentary screened on Wednesday evening which includes footage of him forming a jovial double-act with Tony Benn if only for one night in support of the latter’s by-election campaign at Chesterfield despite Benn’s earlier determined efforts to supplant him.
He wrote a well-regarded autobiography ‘The Time Of My Life’ and there is a biography by the journalist Edward Pearce.
Milton Road, Eastbourne