Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Labor Party Leader in Britain Dies at 55 Succession May Precipitate Divisive Fight

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Labor Party Leader in Britain Dies at 55 Succession May Precipitate Divisive Fight

Article excerpt

Opposition leader John Smith died after suffering a heart attack Thursday, producing a crisis for the Labor Party just as it was looking strong enough to regain control of government after 15 years on the sidelines.

Smith's death came as Labor was hoping to exploit weaknesses in John Major's Conservative Party, which has governed Britain since the election of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Speaker of the House Betty Boothroyd faced a crowded, silent House of Commons to announce Smith's death in a shaking voice. All business was canceled so lawmakers could hold an afternoon tribute.

Smith, 55, had recovered from a near-fatal heart attack in 1988. He was at his London home Thursday morning when he was stricken again. He was taken to nearby St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The Labor Party was left wondering "how we move forward in the light of this tragedy," spokesman Dave Hill said.

No Labor leader stood out as a clear favorite to succeed Smith, probably ensuring a fight over the party's leadership. Party members feared that could divide them at a time the Conservatives are weak because of deep public unhappiness over Britain's longest recession since World War II.

The party's deputy leader, Margaret Beckett, lacks a high profile. Early speculation on a new leader focused on several of Smith's ranking deputies: John Prescott, the party's labor spokesman; Gordon Brown, spokesman on economic issues; and Tony Blair, who speaks for Labor on law and order.

The Labor Party has time to regroup. The Conservatives have until the spring of 1997 to hold parliamentary elections, and they are not likely to call an early vote while their popularity is so low.

Smith, a robust and eloquent Scot with a reassuring manner and a witty and combative parliamentary style, had led the party to its highest standing against the Conservatives in recent years.

Smith excelled in the verbal combat of Prime Minister's Question Time in the House of Commons, the twice-weekly debating session that pits government leaders against the opposition. …

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