Homage to the master fixer

Queen leads tributes to Harold Wilson, Labour's most successful prime minister
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Politicians from right and left yesterday united to salute Lord Wilson, the prime minister whose common touch helped to make him the most electorally successful leader in Labour's history. The only leader who has been able so far to make Labour - in his own words - "the natural party of government" died at the age of 79. His wife, Mary, was at his bedside at St Thomas's Hospital in London, where he had been admitted on Sunday.

As Baroness Thatcher, Lord Callaghan and Sir Edward Heath joined John Major and Tony Blair, the Labour leader, in paying tribute to the only post-war prime minister to win four general elections, and the first to have been educated at a state school, the normal House of Commons business was cancelled for MPs to pay homage to the man who had dominated it for 13 years.

Mr Blair, who was 11 when Lord Wilson ended Labour's 13 years in the political wilderness by narrowly winning the 1964 election, acknowledged that Lord Wilson had faced many "enemies and detractors" in his 38-year political career, but quoted the famous Wilson dictum that "the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing" and declared: "That should be his real epitaph."

He was the most intellectually gifted prime minister of the century. But it was the populist genius of Harold Wilson, the first prime minister truly comfortable with television which, through the clouds of pipe smoke, embedded itself in the national psyche for almost two decades. It was symbolised as much by the affectionately brilliant Mike Yarwood impersonations, and Lord Wilson's honouring of the Beatles, his blameless domestic life, his holiday cottage in the Scilly isles, and the Wilsons' beloved golden labrador, Paddy, as by his fondness for HP Sauce.

Gerald Kaufman, a member of the Wilson "kitchen Cabinet", said yesterday that Lord Wilson had been "bewildered" by the grand dining habits of Cabinet colleagues such as Roy Jenkins. He said he liked nothing better than to "sit down at a table in the Downing Street kitchen" and devour steak and chips "smothered" in the famous sauce.

Mr Major, who fought his own Tory leadership campaign on the theme of a "classless society", recalled Lord Wilson's Yorkshire roots in Huddersfield. "In becoming prime minister he broke at the time through many of the traditional class barriers of the day."

Adding that history would judge that Lord Wilson had kept a cool head through the trauma of devaluation in 1967, his intensive but ultimately abortive attempt to prevent Rhodesia declaring its Unilateral Declaration of Independence, the beginning of the Northern Ireland Troubles in 1969 and the Vietnam war, Mr Major told MPs: "At that time for my generation . . . his ever-present pipe became a symbol of tranquillity in times of turmoil."

Baroness Falkender, Wilson's fiercely loyal private and political secretary for nearly 40 years, sat alongside Lady Wilson holding his hand until two hours before he died peacefully in his sleep at 12.30am. Lady Falkender, who was with Lady Wilson to hear the tributes in Parliament said: "He was very peaceful indeed. No words were exchanged as he drifted in and out of consciousness . . . He felt no pain."

Lord Marsh, who Lord Wilson appointed and later sacked from the Cabinet, said of his conjuror's ability to keep the party together that he was a "prince among political fixers" . But Mr Blair insisted it would be unfair to let his cleverness "eclipse his deep commitment". In a thinly- veiled recognition that Lord Wilson had bequeathed an unruly and unreformed party to his successors, he acknowledged that after his 1974 election victory he had been confronted by left-right factionalism "whose resolution has been the single most outstanding change in my party since Wilson's day".

But he pointed out that apart from ushering in a raft of progressive social legislation Lord Wilson had fought against Cabinet resistance to enact Barbara Castle's plans for trade union reform in the 1969 White Paper, In Place of Strife .

The Labour leader added: "Had this advice been accepted who knows what the future course of history would have been." And Baroness Castle, who had been confronted by the implacable opposition to her White Paper from James Calla-ghan, who was to succeed Lord Wilson as Prime Minister - and sack Lady Castle - declared: "If he had not mysteriously resigned in 1976, Labour would have won the 1979 general election and Margaret Thatcher would never have entered Downing Street."

Many of the tributes yesterday pointed to Lord Wilson's brilliant academic career as the most outstanding first-class Oxford graduate in philosophy politics and economics of his generation and to the single innovation in which he probably took most pride - the creation of the Open University.