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Alan Watkins: Michael Foot – an intellectual prizefighter

The Labour veteran, who died on Wednesday, seemed bookish, but he was an early television star who relished a skirmish

When Enoch Powell was going through a period of unpopularity in all parties (it was just after the "rivers of blood" speech), Michael Foot sat down beside him in the Commons library and engaged him in conversation. They were both experienced parliamentarians. Indeed, it was in that year, 1968, that they had both combined to defeat the reform of the House of Lords introduced by Foot's friend, Richard Crossman.

Foot admired Powell. And Powell, for his part, loved Foot. "And shall I tell you why I love him?" Powell said, who was much given to answering his own questions. "It is because he speaks beautiful English."

The clips which television showed last week gave an inadequate impression of Foot's speaking ability, whether on the platform or in the House. The same old extracts were played again and again. In the early part of his career, his brother Dingle, later solicitor general in a Labour government, said: "Michael shouts." This failing was corrected mainly after he became a minister, first under Harold Wilson and then under James Callaghan.

It may be worth remembering, however, that – so far from being depicted as an innocent abroad in the cruel world in the media – he was an early star of political television. In the 1950s it was virtually the only viewing that was allowed, endlessly disputed by the Whips as much as it was by the broadcasting authorities, BBC and ITV. The programmes were called Free Speech and In the News.

The permanent panellists, apart from a little tinkering around the edges, were Foot; the ageing roué Bob Boothby; the former independent MP W J Brown; and the historian A J P Taylor. Foot played up to his image like anything – bad-tempered, sectarian, the Robespierre of Fleet Street.

I first met him in 1955, when he was a visiting speaker (the other was Iain Macleod) and I was doing a student turn. He was pleasant enough and looked like an unfrocked Methodist minister. He was covered in dandruff and chain-smoked Player's Navy Cut cigarettes. These characteristics were connected with his asthma. In the succeeding decades I came to know him better.

In 1960 I went down to Ebbw Vale to cover his selection as his friend and mentor's successor. The previous member had been Aneurin Bevan. Only political historians will remember this, but Foot was initially not included in the short list, and there was a tremendous row, conducted on traditional Labour Party lines.

Before this second contest, in which he was successful, we had a few words.

I was impressed by how neat and tidy he looked. He was wearing a blue, tailor-made, single-breasted suit, with a red-brown woven tie. His wife Jill, to whom he was devoted (as she was to him), had clearly gone to some pains with him. Throughout her life she would maintain that her husband was well dressed. She insisted on good design and traditional fabrics. Foot's famous duffel coat, which he had worn at the Cenotaph in 1981, was called a Loden coat. He had established this from Jill herself. It was in the height of fashion at that time.

I was invited to stay overnight with Foot in the miner's cottage which Jill had converted after his election for the constituency. He brought me a cup of coffee in bed. I like to take my time, but he indicated that we had to make progress. He told me on the return journey that he – or, rather, Jill – had crashed into a Lucozade lorry and they had both nearly died. Foot had been cured of both his asthma and his smoking. He had also become more relaxed as a public performer.

In the 1970s, Foot was more of a public figure in Labour Party terms. After an early foray into committee-sitting, he had been an independent rebel. My own theory – or perhaps it is more than a theory – is that Foot's ambition was galvanised by Jill. Perhaps the most striking thing he said was when he stood for the leadership in 1980. "If I hadn't done it, my wife would have divorced me" – or words to this effect.

Throughout the 1970s, he established himself as one of the indispensable men in the upper reaches of the government. In the earlier phase, when he was Employment secretary, it was not perhaps Foot's finest hour, when he conceded everything the unions wanted and a bit more. In the later period, under Callaghan, he was effectively deputy prime minister.

For most of the period 1974-79, Britain indeed had a hung parliament. Callaghan governed without a parliamentary majority. three people kept the ship in one piece: Foot; the chief whip, Michael Cocks; and his deputy, Walter Harrison. Foot wanted the government to carry on to the autumn after the defeat of spring 1979. Foot had worked out an ingenious wheeze whereby the vote of confidence would be reversed and the life of Parliament prolonged. Jim Callaghan was having none of it. He had had enough.

In 1980 I backed Foot at 14-1 to become leader of the Labour Party. Malcolm Muggeridge told me at about the same time, shortly after he had become leader, that he had always thought there was an element of ambitious calculation about him. And certainly he had been working his passage in the Labour Party for a decade. But on the Friday and Saturday when he was making up his mind, and before he set off for a trip to Dublin to celebrate an anniversary for one of his heroes, Jonathan Swift, he was still not wholly sure. His mind was nevertheless made up. That was what I wrote at the time.

Foot blamed Tony Benn for bringing about disunity in the party and Roy Jenkins for forming the SDP. A disunited party was the work of Satan. I have no doubt that Foot genuinely believed this. He clearly took much trouble to keep Shirley Williams in the party, to no avail. He was less kindly towards David Owen. In his final speech as leader at the party conference, he brought down the house with a reference to Lord Owen, using a phrase from Zsa Zsa Gabor: "Men who are macho aren't mucho."

I asked him how he had come across the quotation, normally outside his usual field of reference: Swift, Disraeli, Hazlitt, Byron. "I came across it in Anne Robinson's column, in the Daily Mirror," Foot said. I could never persuade him of the merits of either Jenkins or Anthony Crosland. "Tony Crosland has a bogus Oxford accent," Foot would say. He had no time either for Samuel Johnson: "A Tory bully."

But Foot's heroes were a strange collection. Oliver Cromwell came within inches of destroying parliamentary government in this country; Swift was a reactionary Tory High Anglican; Disraeli was a romantic medievalist who made things up.

One of the oddest friendships I witnessed and, up to appoint, participated in, was between Foot and Ian Gilmour. What was the connection? Could it have been the Arab cause? I was not sure. Or a generally enlightened attitude towards social policy? His contempt for Roy Jenkins seemed to dispose of that. At last I understood. It was Lord Byron, for whom they both had a shared enthusiasm. Foot was accompanied to the Gay Hussar restaurant, to funerals and to other social occasions by Jenny Stringer, who had promised Jill to look after him when she was gone.