John Smith 1938-1994: Subdued political mood as grief spans party divisions

RARELY can both Houses of Parliament have so closely mirrored the dramatically subdued mood of each other. Packed, silent benches in erstwhile adversarial Commons and Lords: sombre and in some cases inconsolable; differences of party, faction, constitution, style, set aside; packed benches preoccupied with one grieving cause - the great gap represented by the sudden loss of John Smith.

At 3.30pm MPs sat waiting for Betty Boothroyd, the Commons Speaker, to motion to the Prime Minister to move for the business to be adjourned, some on the Labour benches still moist- eyed from a morning's struggle to come to terms with the sheer unfairness of it all.

Neil Kinnock, Mr Smith's predecessor, pensively making the final touches to his speech. John Prescott, slumping slightly forward. Hilary Armstrong, Mr Smith's parliamentary private secretary, fighting back emotion. A dignified Margaret Beckett, the deputy leader, who was later to say: 'There are few the announcement of whose death would bring tears to the eyes of everyone who knew them.'

The shock waves had begun to reverberate early, as some MPs took breakfast in the tea-room. Visiting constituents and troops of schoolchildren toured the members' lobby and the Commons chamber as usual, ignorant of the expressions, the body language, the hugs, the memories of old friendships and political apprenticeships; the conversations where words do not come easily.

Mr Kinnock had been grieving over the sudden death of his mother-in-law when he heard the news. 'I have to say that I was desolated,' he said later. He spoke for many.

So did John Major as he recalled Mr Smith's formidable skills. 'Even for those against whom those skills were employed, it is hard to bear that we will never see or hear those skills in this House again.' The tribute from the Prime Minister - perhaps a rare, fleeting glimpse of a 'real' John Major - was sincere and genuine; those words, 'hard to bear', perhaps the most poignant.

There were others: the waste, the anger, the regret, the ethical statesman, but also the humour, the love of a man for who adored his family, a good gossip and a convivial drink, the 'joyful privilege', as Mr Kinnock put it, of knowing him.

In any political party the belief that the show must go on is not easily dislodged. Plotting over the succession had begun yesterday, amidst the shell-shock and the summer visitors.

But there were still those memories, from the Sixties to Wednesday night's pounds 500-a-person fund-raising supper. 'He was in such tremendous form,' one MP said. 'Why him? Why now? Nobody can believe it.'

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