Michael Foot would rather lose with honour than cheat to win a battle

John Smith, the former Labour Party leader, used to tell a story about Michael Foot from the dying days of the 1970s Labour government.

Smith was minister for Devolution, struggling in vain to get the Commons to agree to the creation of a Scottish Parliament.

There was one particular clause in the Bill which threatened to cause so much trouble that Smith simply did not know how to present it. He turned to Michael Foot, then Leader of the House, for advice. Foot told him, with mock solemnity: "In politics you should never neglect the possibility that you might have to fall back on the truth."

Michael Foot was not a strong leader. He left behind unbelievable chaos when he stepped down after the debacle of the 1983 election.

But this was not wholly his fault. He presided over a profoundly divided party, torn apart by strong characters such as Denis Healey, David Owen and Tony Benn, none of whom really recognised Foot as a legitimately elected leader.

They were hard-nosed characters prepared to push others aside to get their way. Mr Foot was a gentle man who, at heart, would rather lose a political battle with honour than cheat to win.

During the tributes to him yesterday, numerous people referred to the manifesto on which Labour fought the 1983 election – the "longest suicide note in history"– as if it were Michael Foot's work. It was not. He was the leader, but incredibly he did not control the manifesto. That job was delegated to a committee chaired by Tony Benn.

Foot's obvious weaknesses as a party boss, sadly, obscured what a gifted and attractive human being he was. I was twice guilty, myself, of underestimating him in his old age. I was once at a crowded lunch table where several guests, all from the Labour left, were berating Tony Blair for not being radical enough.

I waited for Michael Foot to intervene, thinking that if he defended Blair or attacked him, it might make a story, but his face was so impassive that I concluded the poor old fellow was stone deaf.

I was disabused when someone down the other end of the table, changing the subject, referred to a woman he named as having been Arthur Koestler's lover. Foot immediately called down the table to correct him. The woman in question was Koestler's former lover's sister.

My second mistake was more recent, when Foot was 88, and overheard me mention the town of St Helens, in Lancashire. He asked what was happening there, so I began laboriously explaining that the Tory MP for Witney, Shaun Woodward, had defected to Labour, and had been parachuted into a safe Labour seat in St Helens. I was cut short in mid explanation. Foot knew all that, and knew that Woodward was facing competition from the far left. He wanted to know if I had polling evidence about what was happening to the Labour vote.

Never, in recent political history, has so appealing a man led so large a political party to so crashing a defeat.

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