JOHN SMITH'S sudden death yesterday stunned the Labour Party with a deep grief and threatened to transform the British political landscape. It will mean a struggle to fill the leadership vacuum left by a shattering loss.
Mr Smith's death at the age of 55 after suffering a heart attack in his London flat in the Barbican is the most profound blow to the party since the death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963 similarly deprived it of a potential prime minister within reach of power.
As normal House of Commons business was adjourned for the day at the Prime Minister's request, John Major led the praise for the Labour leader from across the political spectrum with a moving and graceful tribute, lamenting 'the waste of a remarkable talent, the waste of a high and honourable ambition to lead our country'.
In an elegiac tribute to his successor, Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, quoted Shelley to describe Mr Smith as one who 'burst the icy chains of custom and shone, a day star of his age'.
Most senior members of the Shadow Cabinet, still absorbing the shock of Mr Smith's death - wholly unexpected despite a heart attack five years ago - were too taken aback for rational consideration of the succession. Mr Smith was a unifying and unchallengeable leader and the only member of the Shadow Cabinet to have served in a Labour Cabinet. His loss appeared last night to leave the party in a more fluid and unpredictable state than at any time since it lost power in 1979.
Mr Smith suffered his heart attack at 8.05am while in the bath. After efforts by paramedics to resuscitate him he was taken by ambulance at 8.40 to St Bartholomew's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 9.15. His wife, Elizabeth, flew back to Edinburgh from London to be with her daughters Catherine and Jane at their Morningside home. His eldest daughter, Sarah, 25, was on holiday in California. Friends spent several frantic hours trying to contact her and last night she was flying back to London. Mr Smith's funeral is likely to take place next Wednesday.
He had his first heart attack in October 1988. In a recent interview he declared his health was still improving, but some colleagues had been concerned about the punishing schedule he set himself.
Mr Major's decision to suspend the Commons came after a Cabinet meeting, more than half of which was devoted to Mr Smith's death. The Prime Minister was advised on procedure by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary.
Lord Callaghan, in whose Cabinet Mr Smith served as Secretary of State for Trade, recalled the loss of Gaitskell yesterday, saying in the Lords: 'It is with a sense of overwhelming sadness that I rise to speak on an occasion that I trusted would never happen in my lifetime - to see yet another of our leaders swept away so tragically before he had time to fulfil the great gifts and talents that he possessed.'
The Queen sent a message of sympathy to Mrs Smith, and President Bill Clinton said he was saddened by the untimely death.
In a leadership contest that may determine whether Labour's destiny is as a social democratic party or a more traditionally socialist one, Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, appeared to have a clear edge among Labour MPs. The three most serious other potential candidates are Gordon Brown, shadow Chancellor and a 'moderniser' like Mr Blair, John Prescott, employment spokesman, and Robin Cook, trade and industry spokesman.
There were strong signs last night that Mr Blair and Mr Brown, friends and political allies, would not both stand, though they had not yet decided which one would.
David Blunkett, Labour health spokesman, condemned as premature an outspoken call by Lord Healey, one of the party's elder statesmen, for Mr Blair to be chosen as leader and Mr Prescott as his deputy. Nevertheless, that idea struck a chord in the Westminster lobbies yesterday and appealed to some prominent backbenchers on the Tribunite left who are restive at the prospect of Mr Brown as leader.
But there was no sign that Margaret Beckett would be willing to vacate the deputy leadership to allow such a ticket to run. She will act as leader until the issue is decided.
The party's national executive will meet on 27 May to consider whether the election should be completed by July or whether it should wait until the October party conference. Senior party sources were still indicating last night that a leadership contest would not be set in train until after the European elections on 9 June.
It will be the first contest under the one-member, one-vote system for which Mr Smith gambled his leadership with such spectacular success last October. Perhaps recalling that, Ms Beckett said in the Commons yesterday: 'For someone who looked the acme of sober judgement he was perfectly prepared to take a flyer when he thought the occasion called for it.'
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