Obituary: Ted Leadbitter

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The Independent Online
Membership of the Chairmen's Panel of the House of Commons is the title accorded to those MPs who chair Standing Committees on Bills of the House of Commons. "Upstairs on the committee corridor" their authority really matters, and a good chairman can contribute to the quality of scrutiny of a Bill. Some of my parliamentary colleagues have a talent for being good committee chairmen; others simply turn out not to have the knack.

One Labour Member in recent times who did have talent and knack was Betty Booth-royd; she made her name and reputation on the committee corridor. A decade earlier, another who made his name and might well have become a chairman or deputy chairman of Ways and Means, was Ted Leadbitter. His success was neither foreseeable nor foreseen for, to be candid, on the floor he was often blustering, opinionated and verbose. But he was an excellent chairman and came into his own as a parliamentary performer.

Ted Leadbitter - no one called him Edward, other than he himself, when he was getting on his high horse on the telephone to some functionary whom he suspected did not recognise the importance of a Member of the House of Commons - was born and went to school in Easington, Co Durham. His father and family on his mother's side were miners. His appetite for public life was whetted by the election campaign of 1935, when as a teenager he delivered leaflets, climbed telegraph poles, and placed graffiti on all sorts of places where it was unwelcome, and probably unlawful, in the cause of the Labour candidate - Manny Shinwell.

Shinwell triumphed over his opponent, the National Labour candidate and former prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, by a staggering 38,380 (68.2 per cent) to 17,882 (31.8 per cent). "It was the happiest moment other than when I married Irene of my life," Leadbitter told me.

When Leadbitter arrived in the House of Commons 29 years later, Manny Shinwell, by that time Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, took him under his wing. This had one particular consequence for Leadbitter. It brought him into close contact with Colonel George Wigg, MP for Dudley, and Shinwell's intimate ally and fellow conspirator in military matters. Part of the mantle of George Wigg was to descend on Leadbitter; and he it was in his capacity as a self-appointed espionage investigator who was to pressurise and pressurise, creating the conditions in which Margaret Thatcher was to make her statement on Anthony Blunt.

On 15 November 1979 Leadbitter had on the Commons order paper this question:

To ask the Prime Minister if she will make a statement on recent evidence concerning the actions of an individual whose name has been supplied to her in relation to the security of the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister's reply electrified the House and the country. It read simply:

The name which the Honourable Member for Hartlepool has given me is that of Sir Anthony Blunt . . .

Blunt was the Keeper of the Queen's Pictures and an art historian of international significance and fame.

Thatcher made her celebrated statement on 21 November 1979, and was criticised by Willie Hamilton, then the MP for Central Fife, for doing it on the day that there was a 3 per cent rise in the minimum lending rate. Hamilton accused her of playing politics in her timing. Leadbitter intervened to say that Hamilton was wrong and that it was he who had insisted that she make the statement on that particular day.

Blunt was the subject of the one searing row I had with Leadbitter in 28 years of parliamentary friendship. I fear I started it:

Ted, it was quite unnecessary to do this to Blunt. If Sir Charles Cunningham and successive Permanent Secretaries at the Home Office and successive prime ministers and Home Secretaries of both parties could sleep easily at night in the knowledge of what Blunt had done during the war, why couldn't you?

Leadbitter's reply revealed a lot about his attitudes.

Traitors must be unmasked and it's an MP's duty to do so. Anyhow, why do you take Blunt's part?

I said that as a 15-year-old I had been in a group of boys taken round the Courtauld by Blunt and that he'd given us an understanding of Poussin and the French Impressionists which had enriched our lives. Leadbitter exploded:

Bloody elitist! Why the hell should there be special treatment for Blunt and his ilk? It's my responsibility as a Member of Parliament to deal with these upper-class spies.

He was genuinely enraged by what he saw as special treatment for those and such of those - because he really did believe in equality. Some days later when he had calmed down I tried to reason with him that in order for an agent to get information he had to give some information and anyway the Soviets were allies and the intelligence comings and goings of the Second World War were exceedingly complex matters to be seen in various shades of grey.

Leadbitter would have none of it; he reverted to being the orthodox patriotic gun instructor officer which he had been during the war. He deeply resented the idea that Labour Members of Parliament should be perceived as any less patriotic than Conservative Members.

My first clear memory of the former Mayor of the Hartlepools is when he couldn't contain himself with anger during a speech of 14 December 1964 by Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles, the Conservative MP for Winchester. Morgan-Giles was going on at length about three categories of Labour MPs; Leadbitter exploded:

I'm an ex-serviceman myself. There are Honourable Members on this side of the House who fought for King, Queen and country in both wars.

I suggest that rather than spend his time analysing his so-called three groups on this side of the House, he should look about to see if there is one group over there at the moment.

Few of the admiral's parliamentary colleagues had deem-ed him worth listening to.

During the 1964 General Election Leadbitter had accused the sitting MP of cowardice, and not being prepared to stand in an election against him. Even if it had been true of a candidate reconciled to losing his seat and wanting to participate in a chicken run - which it wasn't in this case - it was thought an odd charge, since the sitting MP was Commander Kerans, who had famously won the Victoria Cross taking HMS Amethyst up the Yangstse river. Accusing a holder of the Victoria Cross of cowardice revealed a certain flaw in Leadbitter's judgement, which was part of the reason he was never given the ministerial office he craved, thought he deserved and where I believe on account of his sincerity and hard work he would have been a success.

In Parliament he championed the cause of teachers, his own profession, and of teacher training. He was a prominent member of the Science and Technology Select Committee and displayed a knowledge and genuine belief in nuclear power which was not only derived from the fact that as the chairman of key committees of the Hartlepools Council he had done much to facilitate the arrival of the Hartlepools nuclear power station for his constituency. One witness at the Select Committee recalls Leadbitter as a champion of the nuclear industry with affection. "You could be sure that his questions would occupy one and a half columns of the proceedings. The answer was either `Yes, sir' or `No, sir', but we in the nuclear industry knew that he was our public friend."

Leadbitter told me that he was sad to leave the House of Commons but pleased that Hartlepools Labour Party should have selected Peter Mandelson. He said:

I have been, though I say it myself, a most assiduous and locally immersed Hartlepools MP. I have been the `centre half back' of the continued existence of the Hartlepools Football Club and the butt of much ribaldry. Now the town deserves someone completely opposite from me who can achieve national prominence and in so doing help the excellent people who have served me, worked with me and been my friends.

Mandelson himself said of Leadbitter:

He was constantly generous to me and about me. He felt that he had passed on a baton, a torch for Hartlepool. He was MP during a period of immense industrial change for the town. He stood for townspeople through a period of vast economic change with industries thrown onto the scrapheap. He never lost sight of the need to focus on the future.

For all his vituperations Ted Leadbitter was a big-hearted and generous man. It was fitting that he should be the first ever Freeman of the Hartlepools and be accorded the honour of being a Freeman of the City of London.

Tam Dalyell

Edward Leadbitter, politician and teacher: born Easington, Co Durham 18 June 1919; MP (Labour) for the Hartlepools 1964-92; married 1940 Irene Mellin (one son, one daughter); died Stockton-on-Tees 23 December 1996.