Europhile defined by bitter rift with Thatcher

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Indy Politics

Not many Prime Ministers genuinely change the course of history. In his relatively brief spell in Downing Street, Sir Edward did so by taking Britain into the then six-nation Common Market on January 1, 1973.

While he was still alive, he was remembered for his spectacular failure ­ the ill-fated "who governs Britain?" election he called in February 1974 to try to mobilise public support against militant trade unionism. He lost, and his political fortunes never recovered.

Last night, friends hoped history would be kinder to him and that he would be remembered for his success on Europe. "It was a very personal achievement of Ted which changed the direction of this country," recalled Lord Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary who served as Sir Edward's political secretary.

After British entry to the Common Market had been blocked by France's General de Gaulle, Sir Edward made it his mission to get his successor George Pompidou to drop the French veto. He courted the French President, sometimes negotiating without officials present in the garden of the Elysée Palace in Paris. "It was an exercise in persuasion, one man persuading another through force of character and knowledge," Lord Hurd recalled.

The crucial 1971 Commons vote on entry was was won with a majority of more than 100. "What we have got to do is to get rid of the idea of us and them, and work together," he said .

It was one of Sir Edward's proudest moments, ranking alongside his surprise election win against his long-running rival Harold Wilson in 1970. The public ratified the Europe decision by a margin of two-to-one when Wilson, back in power, held a referendum in 1975.

In the same year, Sir Edward was ousted by Margaret Thatcher as Tory leader in a humiliating defeat in the first ballot. He refused to serve in her frontbench team and begun what has been described as the "longest sulk in history" and led to him being dubbed "the incredible sulk".

In 1992 he suggested rather optimistically in a television interview that Lady Thatcher would be no more than a footnote in history. He attacked her "rabid and bigoted" warnings about German domination, said she had "a minute mind", was ignorant and told lies about Europe as she conducted "foghorn diplomacy" with Brussels.

Lord Tebbit, the Thatcherite former Tory chairman, said he found a woman replacing him as party leader "particularly cruel" and that marrying might have benefited his career. "I think if he had married, and it was possible at one stage, he might have been a much better politician," he said.

Friends deny Sir Edward was a misogynist. They insist his criticism of his successor was more than just personal pique, that he was genuinely worried about his party's dangerous drift towards Euroscepticism and away from the "One Nation" version of moderate Toryism he espoused ­ again, heavily influenced by the 1930s and the unemployment seen in Britain.

The irony is that, despite their feud, the instincts of Sir Edward and Lady Thatcher were remarkably similar. Key elements of the plans to curb trade union power he published in 1971 were implemented in a step-by-step basis by Lady Thatcher. She got the credit, although she acknowledged his role in setting the right agenda in her warm tribute last night.

Lord Baker, a former Tory Home Secretary, said: "His prolonged sulk was a pity really because he had a lot to give. From 1974 onwards he was more respected outside Britain than inside Britain."

He fostered close links with China and Japan. He struck out on his own, notably in the first Gulf War when he went on a humanitarian mission to Iraq and pleaded with Saddam Hussein for the release of sick and elderly British hostages. His returned with 33.

Sir Edward was often seen as grumpy and aloof. After losing an election within a year of becoming Tory leader in 1965 to the more populist Wilson, his aides decided the lonely, rather distant bachelor needed a makeover. They found one in sailing. Sir Edward transformed himself, in his late forties, into a world-class yachtsman. He was also loved music. Friends and colleagues saw another side to the public image ­ a witty man who was good company.

"He did not suffer fools gladly. But if you were entertained by him at his home in Salisbury, he was a very different man," said Lord Heseltine, the former Deputy Prime Minister. He said Sir Edward was regarded as a "hero" to his generation, the first of a new breed as the son of a builder and a mother who did domestic service.

It was an open secret that Sir Edward stayed on as MP for Bexley for so long because he wanted to "see off" Lady Thatcher. He rejected pleas from friends who urged him to take it easy with a seat in the Lords, a club he refused to join and regarded with contempt. He became Father of the House, the longest continuously-serving MP, in 1992, the year he was knighted. He was the oldest member of the Commons when he finally stood down.

He would not have shed any tears when Lady Thatcher, in turn, was ousted in a palace coup in 1990. Even after she departed the Commons in 1992, he stayed on for another nine years, as if to emphasise that he had outlasted her in the place that mattered most.