Obituary: Derek Fatchett

THE PREMATURE death of Derek Fatchett robs the Labour Party of a politician who friends and foes alike believed was destined for a place in the Cabinet.

Though he came to foreign affairs relatively late, he proved himself an able, unflappable Minister of State at the Foreign Office, where his brief included sensitive international issues including Indonesia, the Middle East and, most recently, Kosovo. He had worked especially hard on the normalisation of Britain's relations with Iran after the Salman Rushdie affair, soon to be sealed with the first exchange of ambassadors since the Islamic revolution of 1979. Had he lived, Fatchett would this summer have become the first British minister to go to Tehran in over two decades, a visit to which he was greatly looking forward.

It would have been the sort of task that few could have conceived lay ahead when he first became involved in politics. But, after he joined the party as a student in 1964, Fatchett's career mirrored the journey of Labour's soul. Like so many others, he made the gradual passage from the hard left to the left-centre; in his case from quasi-Marxism to a place on Panel 2000, the thoroughly Blairite body set up to rebrand Britain as a cool, dynamic and modern country, to be admired and invested in by discriminating foreigners.

In some respects Fatchett fitted the part. Though he was devoted to those traditional English pursuits of cricket and gardening, he came across as competent, classless and, in a quiet way, committed to change.

His first bid to enter Parliament in 1979 ended in failure when he resoundingly lost Bosworth. ("My great achievement," he would later joke, "was to turn what was then a marginal Conservative seat into a safe Conservative seat.") Four years on, however, he was selected for, and won, Leeds Central, which he would represent until his death.

The Fatchett of those days was almost a caricature of the bearded left- wing lecturer Labour MP, that fast-disappearing species under New Labour. No sooner had he arrived at Westminster after 12 years on the faculty at Leeds University than he signed up with the Campaign Group, dominated in those days by Tony Benn. Two years later however he left, in protest at its "futile vanguardism" and "authoritarianism", and became a follower of Neil Kinnock. When Kinnock stepped down after losing the 1992 election, Fatchett was still perceived to be on the left of the party - but the thoughtful left which accepted that after four successive defeats, Labour had to find a new philosophy.

He backed Margaret Beckett for the deputy leadership that April, but it was another woman, Mrs Thatcher, who became an improbable role model. As Fatchett pointed out to the new leader John Smith, "Our model must now be Margaret Thatcher . . . she turned the Tory party from an anti- ideas party into an ideas party. It will mean a cultural shift for Labour, so that someone who comes up with a novel idea is not accused of betrayal or rocking the boat."

In fact his new mentor would be neither Mrs Beckett nor John Smith, but Robin Cook, whom he accompanied from the Opposition front bench into Government and the Foreign Office. The two linked up in 1992 when Fatchett was switched to the industry team headed by Cook. Three years later the duo moved to foreign affairs, and the first Labour pairing at the Foreign Office was already obvious, two years before it happened.

Had Cook run for the leadership in 1994, Fatchett might well have been campaign manager. As it was he would later be referred to as "Robin Cook's representative on earth" - except that, in office, the viceroy would prove himself a good deal less accident-prone than the celestial king. Their one policy disagreement was on PR. While Cook came around to the idea, at least as far as Scotland and Wales were concerned, Fatchett remained a diehard opponent of electoral reform.

As a parliamentarian he was popular, but created few waves - a habit that old allies-turned-opponents put down to fierce ambition, and determination to do nothing to offend the leadership. But, in the Foreign Office, these Teflon-like qualities were perfect. Physically trim and tidy, he exuded smoothness and easy mastery of a brief, and he was much admired and respected by his officials.

Fatchett had his critics in the party, who detested his bland defence of what they considered indefensible British positions on Iraq, Kosovo, and - initially - last August's wanton US missile attack on a harmless medicine factory in Sudan. But at the FO, he was the quintessential "safe pair of hands", relaxed under fire, and untouched by such embarrassments as Sierra Leone and the royal visit to India which swirled around his boss.

In his unobtrusive way, however, Derek Fatchett was also a reformer. To friends he would confide his keenness to change the Foreign Office, to break down its entrenched and rigid structures, and bring in more women and minorities. To an extent those goals are being realised, though more slowly than he would have wished. Almost certainly, had he lived, he would have left the Foreign Office to move back to domestic affairs. His natural home was seen by many as Health or Social Security, and one day as Secretary of State.

Rupert Cornwell

Derek John Fatchett, politician: born Lincoln 22 August 1945; Lecturer in Industrial Relations, Leeds University 1971-83; MP (Labour) for Leeds Central 1983-99; Labour Whip 1986-87; Opposition spokesman on Education and Employment Training 1987-92, Trade and Industry 1992-94, Foreign Affairs 1995-97; Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1997-99; married 1969 Anita Bridgens (nee Oakes; two sons); died Wakefield, West Yorkshire 9 May 1999.

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