John Smith 1938-1994: Jollity and wit at gala dinner: John Smith was in good humour and confident during his last public function

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a night very much in the mould of the new Labour Party which John Smith had done so much to forge.

On the evening before his death, the party leader was hosting a dinner for 450 of the great and good, paying up to pounds 500 each to raise funds for the forthcoming Euro elections, at the Park Lane Hotel in the West End of London.

It was Labour at play, but with serious intent, raising more than pounds 100,000 in one night. As one of the guests observed, this was the 'grown- up' Labour Party - not worried about making use of its affluent supporters to raise funds and not scared of being criticised by the left and right of having 'sold out' by talking to business and City leaders.

Mr Smith clearly enjoyed the occasion. His tubbiness, lost after his first heart attack, had returned but it did not stop him energetically touring the room greeting people, bubbling over with confidence.

There was no hint of vulnerability, of self-doubt, of any thought that he was not going to be the next prime minister. 'There will be more of these dinners,' he said, 'but not too many before there is a Labour government.'

The atmosphere was jolly, if somewhat restrained. An MP or MEP had been placed at each table to look after the guests. The 180 industrialists, in lounge suits like everyone else because the party had eschewed black tie in the interests of informality, did not look entirely happy perched between Labour stalwarts and the likes of Melvyn Bragg, and the actors Neil Pearson, of Between the Lines, and Alan Rickman of Truly, Madly Deeply. Indeed, they moaned a bit that the wine did not flow fast enough and the meal of asparagus and lamb mousse, herbed lamb, and lemon biscuit dessert was mediocre.

But there was fun, too. An auction was held of objects ranging from a football signed by the Manchester United team to a set of seven Orwell first editions donated by the film-maker Hugh Hudson and bought by John Prescott for pounds 3,500.

The tone of Mr Smith's speech showed that he was not aiming at the party faithful but the industrialists who remain to be convinced that Labour could be good for them - noting with pride 'that this was the best turn-out of business people' at any such function he had attended.

The speech was sharp and witty. He spoke of the 'help he had received from the Tories' in winning last week's local council elections, listing a string of recent disasters. 'What a remarkable achievement to get the British Legion and Dame Vera Lynn to oppose the D-Day commemoration,' he said. 'John Major is the Captain Mainwaring of British politics.'

At the end of the auction at 11pm, most of the party guests quickly drifted away, apart from huddles of friends and comrades chatting. Mr Smith was one of the last to leave, just before midnight, to go home to the Barbican. Strangely, the atmosphere of those last minutes had been soured by news that Glenys Kinnock's mother had died.