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The king of Loonies is dead. Long live the Loony Party

HE DIED on Wednesday, the nation briefly mourned and that, most of us thought, was that. Goodbye to the Monster Raving Loony Party.

But the party created by Screaming Lord Sutch isn't going away. In Ashburton, a pretty, ever-so-respectable and not-at-all-loony town on the edge of Dartmoor, the party grandees are planning the succession. The leader is gone; the cause remains.

The papers portrayed Lord Sutch as a British eccentric. A man who, wearing trademark top hat and leopard-skin suit, deflated the pomposity of politicians, demanding heated toilet seats for pensioners, and who wanted fish bred in a European wine lake so they could be caught ready pickled.

Eccentric he was, but much more as well. He was actually rather shy and, strange though it may seem, he really believed in "loonyism". And in Ashburton he discovered he was not alone. Here they are mourning the death of a man they felt privileged to call a close friend.

The Official Monster Raving Loony Party, which he headed for more than 30 years, has its headquarters in the town's Golden Lion hotel. The landlord, Alan Hope, a former rock'n'roll singer, was the party's deputy until the tragic events of last week. He has assumed leadership and will carry the OMRLP forward until its 19th annual conference this September in the hotel.

Inside the Golden Lion an election placard showing Lord Sutch in classic pose outside 10 Downing Street, loudhailer in hand, has been propped up against the bar. "The king is dead; long live the king," said Mr Hope. "But may the legend be even greater than the king."

Pictures of Mr Hope and Lord Sutch hang above the bar, while a large cabinet displays the departed leader's autobiography and an LP. Posters advertising Lord Sutch's occasional gigs testify to his rock-playing origins. OMRLP badges are liberally sprinkled around the bar area.

"We'll keep it going. I think we have to," said Mr Hope, who has been shattered by the death of his closest friend. "It's a terrible tragedy, a real shock. He died on my 57th birthday. I always thought I would get a phone call telling me that he wasn't alive any more but I didn't expect him to hang himself."

Lord Sutch's depression was widely known. He had taken medication and was deeply affected by the ill health of his mother, Nancy, who died on the eve of polling day in May 1997. But Mr Hope had believed his friend's fortunes had taken a turn for the better. "He had got himself sorted," said Mr Hope. "He'd just secured an advert for Coco Pops and he was bubbling and bouncing."

Calls of sympathy and condolence have come to the pub from across the world, testifying to the warmth Lord Sutch inspired in those he met. "He would have loved this reaction," said Mr Hope. "Politicians loved him. He shook Harold Wilson's hand and Margaret Thatcher thought the world of him. I don't think he realised what he's left behind."

Mr Hope wants a national memorial to his friend. "I'd like there to be a monument to Lord Sutch right in the middle of Parliament Square, next to Winston Churchill, who was his hero. And they made a postage stamp of Freddie Mercury when he died, so why can't they do the same for him?"

Lord Sutch (he was not a hereditary peer - he changed his name by deed poll) was due to visit the pub this weekend. A teetotaller, he was popular with regulars, who talk of a shy, laid-back man forever clasping a large mug of tea. "He always had time to speak to people," said James Bresin, a Golden Lion regular. "He didn't make a distinction between the powerful politicians and people like us. He always shook our hands."

Mr Hope bought the Golden Lion in 1977. "They brought a lot of trade to Ashburton," said Peter Sear, another regular in the Golden Lion. "Without them this town would be a lot worse off."

The party's influence does not stop there. Mr Hope, a local councillor for 13 years, was recently re-elected mayor for a second term of office. "I was unopposed when I first stood for election. That was important because if I'd got a single vote I would have had to resign from the party for being too serious."

Mr Hope's election as mayor also kept within the Loonies' sacrosanct, though unwritten, electoral code. The first choice dropped out and Mr Hope was nominated by the vicar and an undertaker's wife. His re-election was equally fitting: "The vote was 4-4 and as I had the casting vote I voted for myself. If I'd been elected by a majority then the party would have taken a dim view of it all."

The citizens of Ashburton are entirely happy with his reign, he asserts. "It doesn't matter what your politics are or if you come from Mars if you're the right man for the job," he said. He points out that some of Lord Sutch's ideas - all-day pub opening, abolition of the 11-plus and voting at 18 - have become mainstream.

But for the time being Mr Hope has other things on his mind. He expects to be involved in the funeral arrangements of his friend of 42 years. "It won't be a funeral," he declared. "It will be a rejoicing in his memory."