Foreign Office: Cook's right-hand man dies at 53

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TRIBUTES TO Derek Fatchett, the Foreign Office minister who died from a heart attack at the age of 53, were led yesterday by Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary,.

He told a subdued House of Commons: "His early death cruelly deprives the House of a member who had so much more to give, and robs many of us of a friend whom we will remember as always cheerful, whatever the difficulties."

Close colleagues of Mr Cook said the loss of his "right-hand man" was a devastating blow. Mr Fatchett was one of Mr Cook's closest friends as well a political ally. He was described yesterday as "solid as a rock" during Mr Cook's troubled times since the general election, which have seen the break-up of his marriage, and criticism of his "ethical foreign policy" and his handling of the arms-to-Africa affair.

Westminster was stunned by the death of Mr Fatchett, who was in good health, fit and still played cricket. He was said to be "in good spirits" when he caught the train for his Leeds Central constituency on Saturday after staging the daily press conference on the Kosovo crisis at the Ministry of Defence. He is understood to have died on Sunday after suffering a massive heart attack in a pub in West Yorkshire. "We are all devastated; it is a terrible warning to all of us," one minister said yesterday. "We all ignore the advice when people tell us to slow down. We think we are invulnerable."

A Labour MP said: "The lifestyle of a minister is gruelling. The officials fill up your every waking hour. At the Foreign Office, the travel makes it worse. You fly halfway round the world and go straight into the office on your return to catch up."

Denis MacShane, who was Mr Fatchett's Parliamentary Private Secretary, said: "He worked tirelessly in China, Asia and the Middle East to ensure that leaders in those parts of the world were personally in touch with what the Government was thinking and proposing. He worked round the clock to promote British values of global democracy and human rights as well as the specific interests of exporters from the UK."

Mr Fatchett played an active role in the Labour Party's internal debates, where he was a pivotal figure on the "inside left" which sought to influence Tony Blair's modernising project from a left-of-centre perspective. He had been tipped for early promotion to the Cabinet.

A former university lecturer who entered the Commons in 1983, he leaves a wife and two sons. A by-election will now be held in his Leeds Central constituency, a safe Labour seat where he had a majority of 20,689 at the general election.

Obituary, Review, page 6