Tony Banks, minister and maverick, dies aged 62 after massive stroke

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Indy Politics

With an acerbic wit and a readiness to throw comic jibes at his political opponents, Tony Banks was one of the most colourful figures in British politics.

Last night, Tony Blair led tributes to the former sports minister, who died four days after suffering a massive stroke while on holiday in the United States.

He died in hospital in Florida, four days after he collapsed while having lunch on Thursday during a trip to stay with his family on Sanibel Island, off the west coast. He was flown by helicopter to Fort Myers where doctors found that he had suffered a stroke and severe brain damage.

Last night Mr Blair said Mr Banks was "one of the most charismatic politicians in Britain, a true man of the people".

Mr Banks, who adopted the name Lord Stratford after his home in East London when he was made a life peer last summer, was a man of one-liners who combined his ready wit with a serious passion for subjects from animal rights and football to political memorabilia and high art.

During his long political career as MP for West Ham, Mr Banks became known as one of Parliament's greatest wits. His quips, from branding William Hague a "foetus" to describing Margaret Thatcher has having "the sensitivity of a sex-starved boa-constrictor" were even immortalised in a book. He once said of John Major, "He is so unpopular, if he became a funeral director people would stop dying."

But the left-winger will be best known for his pivotal role in forcing a ban on fox-hunting into law.

He was born in Belfast in 1943, but was brought up in south London. He was educated at York University and the London school of economics. During the 1970s and 1980s, he was a leading member of the Greater London Council, before entering the House of Commons as MP for Newham North West - later West Ham - in 1983.

For an MP seen by many as something of a maverick, the avid Chelsea fan was a surprise appointment as Minister for Sport in 1997. He eventually relinquished the job to become the Prime Minister's envoy for England's failed attempt to host the 2006 football World Cup.

On the backbenches, he was a passionate supporter of animal rights, served as vice president of the League Against Cruel Sports and tirelessly pushed for a full ban on hunting with hounds.

He chaired the Commons committee responsible for works of art, and was responsible for commissioning a statue of Margaret Thatcher to stand in the Commons. He even commissioned a replacement copy of the £150,000 marble work when it was later beheaded .

Mr Banks stood down from the Commons at the last election after representing the east London constituency of Newham North West, latterly renamed West Ham, since 1983. His decision to stand down was uncharacteristically low key but his departure spared no prisoners, as he described as his constituency case work "intellectually numbing, tedious in the extreme".

He was elevated to the House of Lords and took the title Lord Stratford as a "nom de politics", expecting always to be addressed as plain Tony Banks.

The Prime Minister said: "Whether he was campaigning for the regeneration of East London, fighting for animal welfare or expressing his enthusiasm for Chelsea Football Club, he was someone who said what he thought and was loved by people for it."

He added: "I was proud to have him as a sports minister in the first term of the Government and, like everyone in the Labour Party, will miss him and regret that he was taken from us so soon."

Mr Banks' friend, the former Conservative minister David Mellor, said: "I think the great thing about Tony was that he was a man of passion in his politics and was in possession of a sharp and witty tongue.

"But he exuded such joie de vivre that no one could seriously take offence to his opinions. He delighted in living up to the old parliamentary convention that whatever was said in the chamber you would be friends outside of it.

"These days in the Commons, that's been forgotten but Tony never forgot that."

Banks on ...

MARGARET THATCHER "She is happier getting in and out of tanks than in and out of museums or theatre seats."

JOHN MAJOR "He is so unpopular, if he became a funeral director people would stop dying."

WILLIAM HAGUE "To make matters worse, they have elected a foetus as party leader ... I bet there's a lot of Tory MPs that wish they hadn't voted against abortion now."

PETER HITCHENS [After refusing to appear with him on the BBC's Question Time] "[He] is an objectionable lout ... and a bar-room bully."

BEING APPOINTED AS MINISTER FOR SPORT IN 1997 "I'm completely gobsmacked. It's a bit like going to heaven without having to die first."

CRUELTY TO ANIMALS "I just hope that I am around when that asteroid crashes into the earth and wipes out all life forms, as happened 65 million years ago."

DEALING WITH CONSTITUENTS "Intellectually numbing and tedious in the extreme."

THE INDISCRETIONS OF DAVID MELLOR "Since the great days of Jimmy Greaves, it's the only time that anyone's managed to score five times in a Chelsea shirt."

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