Trust me, Denis Healey would have made a terrible Prime Minister (and I'm his son)

My father is supremely confident and intelligent. But he was never a natural leader

Tim Healey
Tuesday 24 June 2014 16:59

The Independent once listed my father, Denis Healey, as one of the best Prime Ministers we never had.

Not so. I think my father would have made a rubbish PM. He was not clubbable enough; never bothered to nurture a coterie of supporters. And he could privately be very diminishing about people who were in his own camp.

Dad’s supreme confidence in his own judgements, forged in that mighty, double-first Balliol man’s brain, meant that he lacked the simpler chairman-like skill of listening to other people.

I think he was happiest heading a department, where he was not so much pitting himself against people as against intellectual problems, whether relating to Defence or the Exchequer. He loathed being in Opposition, because it seemed to him all about point-scoring, not problem-solving.

I do believe that he saw himself as a public servant, and was entirely content serving under a Prime Minister better skilled at premiership than he. An almost soldierly loyalty was one of his virtues in politic, a quality perhaps learned in the war but also, I believe, a part of his temperament. Dad was completely loyal to the Labour Party when many of his closest political allies were defecting to the SDP. He was completely loyal to Harold Wilson (who he did not much like) and to Michael Foot (who he liked, despite Foot’s own, glaring lack of premiership qualities).

I believe that Dad was most comfortable working for Jim Callaghan, a personal friend who shared his centre right views within the Labour Party. Absolutely no part of my father would ever have manoeuvred to replace him as premier. In fact, it was quite the reverse. When Callaghan’s retirement became imminent I found Dad musing by the pool at his home near Alfriston in East Sussex.

"They’re talking about me as possibly the next prime minister."
"Well, of course,’ I said, ‘You’re the obvious choice."
"It’s ridiculous."
"Why’s that?"
"It’s ridiculous," he repeated.

Denis Healey, classic Virgo! You’ll have to forgive me, but as a child of the sixties I take a passing interest in star signs.

Virgos are characterised by hard work, organisational ability and an intensely critical, discriminating intelligence. They tend to be perfectionists, favour orderly routines and possess an unwavering attention to detail. That’s Dad all right.

He is 96 now, and has kept a diary, methodically and pretty much daily since his teens. His huge library of books, records and newspaper cuttings has always been filed with an extraordinary neatness, and while my mother was alive he disapproved of – or was frankly baffled by – the clutter in her study.

The downside of all that diligence and efficiency is a tendency to be hypercritical, which can manifest in rude and domineering behaviour. These traits my father certainly exhibited in his political life, and they did him no favours with the more sensitive souls in the Labour Party.

Above all, Virgos are said to have an ethic of utility to society imprinted in their DNA. Their motto is "I serve". They are not known for an ability to handle public life, often preferring to work alone, or in the background. Is that why, when the issue of the premiership came up, Dad just sort of went blank? It wasn’t that he didn’t want the job. He couldn’t imagine it. It was, well, ridiculous.

Unfortunately, a brief look at the historical record reveals that three notable British premiers were Virgos: Henry Campbell Bannerman; Herbert Asquith and Andrew Bonar Law. Law was the shortest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century, which might give some credence to my theory that Virgos are unsuited to premiership.

However, Asquith was the longest continuously serving premier in the 20th century before Mrs Thatcher. Drat! There goes another theory. You will have to excuse me on the grounds that I am, myself, a Gemini and we are known for a tendency to favour enchanting fantasies over matters of sober fact.

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