Politicians pay a high price for the relentless pace of public life

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Indy Politics

The relentless pace of political life has cost many of the most prominent holders of public office their health. From prime ministers to party leaders, a common trait has emerged among those afflicted with work-related health problems: being self-confessed workaholics.

Two months ago, Lord Williams of Mostyn, leader of the House of Lords and a trusted ally of Tony Blair, died of a heart attack at the age of 62. His death stunned the political establishment, in particular Mr Blair, who spoke of his "profound shock".

In January this year, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the former Labour Chancellor and Home Secretary, died of a suspected heart attack at his Oxfordshire home at the age of 82.

Three years ago, Donald Dewar, Scotland's First Minister, died at the age of 63 after suffering a brain haemorrhage three months after major heart surgery.

John Smith, the leader of the Labour Party, died in May 1994 after suffering a heart attack. He had a history of cardiac problems and had suffered a heart attack a few years earlier.

While Margaret Thatcher shared the workaholic tendencies of Mr Blair and was proud of her good health, even she succumbed to ill health at times of high stress. She was taken ill with what appeared to be a bad bout of flu in Sri Lanka, which she attributed to the air conditioning. She carried out her duties on the trip, including a speech to the parliament, with difficulty.

Her health has declined since she left office. She has suffered a series of minor strokes which culminated in her doctors advising her not to make speeches. Harold Wilson, another indefatigable premier, suffered little more than the occasional bout of flu during his terms of office, but his resignation in 1976 was believed to be health related.

Sir Winston Churchill fell ill in his final years as prime minister. But details of his illness were shielded from the public. Harold Macmillan wrote in 1954: "He is now quite incapable ­ mentally as well as physically ­ of remaining prime minister. He thinks about one thing all the time ­ the Russian visit and his chance of saving the world ­ until it has become an obsession." It was later disclosed that Churchill, who resigned in 1955, had suffered a severe stroke while in office. Few of his colleagues realised what had happened and the public were not told.

Macmillan also became a victim of ill health while serving as prime minister when he was diagnosed with prostate problems in 1963. Believing his illness to be worse than it was, he handed in his resignation to the Queen during a royal visit to his hospital bed.

He said at the time: "I will not be able to carry the physical burden of leading the party into the next general election. I hope it will soon be possible for the customary processes of consultation to be carried on within the party about its future leadership."

In past 35 years, two cabinet ministers have died in office ­ the Tory Iain Macleod, who died in 1970 and became the only chancellor in history not to deliver a Budget; and Antony Crosland, the Labour Foreign Secretary, who died in 1977.

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