'What would Michael Foot have been like as Prime Minister? I believe he would have led a successful Labour government'

Michael Foot, the great bibliophile – for thus I will remember him, rather than as parliamentary orator or sometime leader of the Labour Party – began one of the most fascinating essays in the English language, his essay on Beaverbrook entitled "The Case for Beelzebub", thus:

"Legends are created, as every journalist knows, in the cuttings libraries of newspaper offices; no sooner are a man's or woman's eccentricities established there than they become embalmed, and may be disinterred in every plausible detail, until the last trumpet is sounded. But history, against the odds, must attempt some readjustments."

Had my friend and European parliamentary colleague John Ardwick not predeceased Foot, doubtless his elegant pen would have suitably mocked the public onslaught of 1995 – Oleg Gordievsky's suggestion, highlighted by The Sunday Times and the Rupert Murdoch press, that Foot was an "agent of influence" for the Soviet Union.

George Carman QC told The Sunday Times that the insinuation that Foot was traitorous was so ridiculous that he would cease to work for them if their in-house lawyers insisted on going ahead.

Never can there have been a higher-volume horse laugh resounding round the Labour Party. We could envisage no figure on the face of this planet less suitable to be an agent or spy than the champion of Byron and Thomas Paine. Moreover, one of the paradoxes of Michael Foot's character was that he was a British patriot as deeply as he was a left-winger. Indeed, it was his – some of us would think simplistic – patriotism which catapulted him into endorsing the despatch of the task force in the Falklands War in 1982.

When, on the morning of 3 April 1982, I barged into the Leader of the Opposition's room as his science spokesman to say, "Michael, don't endorse the sending of the task force – I know more about South America and military technology than you do!", his gentle rebuke was: "Tam, and I know more about Fascism than you do." For him, Leopoldo Galtieri was the incarnation of Benito Mussolini, and had to be confronted.

To insinuate that Michael Foot, with his political history, was disloyal to Britain was preposterous. To insinuate that he could have had any truck with Soviet authoritarian regimes as their tool was plain wicked.

It was obvious to his friends that the old war-horse in him relished his last great fight. It took him back 45 years to 2 March 1950, when the Evening Standard produced a scandalous front page under the headlines "Fuchs and Strachey: A Great New Crisis. War Minister Has Never Discussed Communism. Now Involved in MI5 Efficiency Probe".

Foot responded, as Editor of Tribune, with a scorching polemic. Someone in the office suggested the title "Prostitutes of the Press". Foot thought that too "banal and defamatory" and therefore substituted what was thought to be the more anodyne, but equally accurate and insulting: "Lower than Kemsley". Lord Kemsley was at that time proprietor of the Daily Sketch and the Sunday Times, held in Foot's circle to be the touchstones of low journalism. Kemsley instituted libel proceedings, and the case dragged on for three years. Foot eventually triumphed.

In his last decade, Foot ascended to icon status among those of an Old Labour disposition. Be it at the Durham Miners' Gala or the celebration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, ever frailer, he would rise and some of the old oratorical strength would surge up in him. No one in the Labour Movement can ever have been asked to speak at more memorial meetings and funerals to say farewell to comrades and friends. Foot's sense of fun shone through, when, in 2002, with great feeling at the Central Hall, Westminster, he said goodbye to Barbara Castle, with a rich description of their holiday in France nearly 70 years earlier.

The unique timbre of Foot drawing his verbal pictures cannot be captured from the printed word. He is one of few – very few – to have been both a considerable public speaker and a considerable writer: a rare combination indeed. Could it have been that he understood, better than most, the subtle, all-important differences between the spoken and the written word?

In the 20 years alone after he left the Commons he was the author of Another Heart and Other Pulses: the alternative to the Thatcher society (1984), Loyalists and Loners (a series of biographical portraits, 1986), The Politics of Paradise: a vindication of Byron (1988), H.G.: the history of H.G. Wells (1995), Dr Strangelove, I Presume (a history of the Cold War and post-Cold War nuclear arms race, 1999) and, to celebrate his 90th birthday, The Uncollected Michael Foot (edited by Brian Brivati, 2003). He also edited the Thomas Paine Reader (with Isaac Kramnick, 1987) and wrote numerous prefaces and introductions – most recently an introduction to Greg Rosen's anthology of party speeches, Old Labour to New, published in February 2006.

What would Michael Foot have been like as Prime Minister? He was an excellent and decisive Secretary of State for Employment, a view endorsed not only by Jack Jones and Vic Feather, but also by a number of employers initially horrified at his appointment. He was a good Leader of the House, in the not uncritical judgement of John Smith, who was his junior minister in the Privy Council Office. His leadership of the Labour Party was derailed by the Falklands War, and cruel coverage of his attire – actually respectful – at the Cenotaph.

I believe he would have led a successful Labour government. He was a shrewd chooser of people. He could delegate. Jealousy of colleagues' success was absent from his nature. Foot's Chancellor, probably Peter Shore, would have had a free hand. His weak area, relations with the Americans, would have been left to the Foreign Secretary, Denis Healey. He would have encouraged ministers, and honoured the accountability of the House of Commons. His wife Jill Craigie would have been an exciting hostess at Downing Street.

And, even in Downing Street, he would have retained the huge affection of the trade unions and the Labour Party.

Tam Dalyell

Michael Mackintosh Foot, politician, journalist and writer: born Plymouth 23 July 1913; Assistant Editor, Tribune 1937-38, managing director 1945-74, Editor 1948-52, 1955-60; Acting Editor, Evening Standard 1942; MP (Labour) for Devonport 1945-55, for Ebbw Vale 1960-83, for Blaenau Gwent 1983-92; Secretary of State for Employment 1974-76; PC 1974; Deputy Leader, Labour Party 1976-80; Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 1976-79; Leader, Labour Party, and Leader of the Opposition 1980-83; married 1949 Jill Dell (née Craigie, died 1999); died London 3 March 2010.

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