Whitelaw, the loyal lieutenant, dies at 81

LORD WHITELAW, the former Deputy Prime Minister and "sheet anchor" of Margaret Thatcher's government, has died aged 81, his family announced yesterday.

Tony Blair led the flood of tributes to a politician regarded as one of the most distinguished and honourable "One Nation" Tory statesmen of his generation. He said the former Northern Ireland Secretary, Home Secretary and leader of both the House of Commons and Lords had commanded enormous respect "from friend and foe alike" and made a huge contribution to public life.

Viscount Whitelaw of Penrith, who was awarded a hereditary peerage in 1983, had been ill for several months. He died peacefully in his sleep on Wednesday. He leaves a widow, Cecilia, and four daughters.

William Hague, the Conservative leader, said the first political meeting he attended was addressed by Lord Whitelaw and he had been an inspiration to him ever since. "The death of Lord Whitelaw has taken from us one of the towering figures of British politics," he added. Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown said he was "a wise and honourable One Nation Conservative with a strong sense of humour and public duty."

Baroness Thatcher, who once famously remarked that every premier "needed a Willie", was one of three former Prime Ministers to praise Lord Whitelaw. She said his decency, integrity and patriotism were invaluable and claimed he was "indispensable" to her government. "Willie Whitelaw was one of the great figures of our time and represented all that is best in Britain," she said. "As Deputy Prime Minister he was a pillar of strength and he deserved much of the credit for our successes in the 1980s.

"He had an extraordinary and intuitive understanding of what people were thinking, faultless judgement, and to me he was always a loyal and unwavering friend."

Sir Edward Heath said Lord Whitelaw had been "for decades, one of the most skilful and dependable men in politics. His influence throughout his long career was immense."

And John Major paid tribute to one of the "great Conservatives" of the past 50 years. "He made a massive contribution to our public life," he said. "He personified decency, compassion and tolerance."

William Stephen Ian Whitelaw was born in 1918 and went to Cambridge before a distinguished career in the Army, becoming a tank commander in the Second World War. As a Scots Guards major, he won the Military Cross for bravery in the Normandy campaign and was twice mentioned in dispatches. Field Marshal Montgomery presented his medals, praising his "outstanding leadership and cool courage".

He entered the Commons as MP for Penrith in 1955, and his qualities bore him through Tory ranks to serve in Mr Heath's government in the early 1970s.

As Northern Ireland Secretary, William Whitelaw was nearly forced to quit when it emerged he had been involved in controversial negotiations with the IRA. Lord Fitt, who as Gerry Fitt was leader of the SDLP, was among the first to pay tribute. "He was the first Northern Ireland Secretary since the collapse of Stormont, and by any yardstick he was the most successful," he said. "He succeeded in bringing together both communities and forming the first executive."

After Margaret Thatcher beat Ted Heath for the Conservative leadership, he became her deputy and most trusted lieutenant. Lord Whitehall's geniality and deceptively laid-back manner were the hallmarks of a unique political style of the "minister for banana skins"who calmed the nerves of colleagues during the crises of the Thatcher government.

Lord Whitelaw stepped down as Leader of the Lords in 1988 and ended his 16-year reign as deputy leader of the Conservative party only in 1991.

Even his retirement, he refused to use his memoirs to "tell tales" on the Heath and Thatcher governments, and displayed the loyalty that had won him many friends.

Leading article, Review, page 3, Obituary, Review, page 6