The prime minister has led tributes to Denis Healey – a “giant of postwar politics” and hero of the second world war – after the former chancellor’s family announced that he had died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Sussex on Saturday morning. He was 98.
Credited by many as the man who saved the economy in 1976 by negotiating a loan from the International Monetary Fund, Healey was the last survivor of the cabinet formed by Harold Wilson after Labour’s victory in the 1964 general election.
A bon vivant and accomplished painter, often described as “the best prime minister we never had”, Healey was an MP for 40 years until his retirement in 1992, serving as secretary of state for defence from 1964-1970 and as chancellor from 1974-1979.
He also came close to winning the Labour leadership in 1980, finishing just 10 votes behind Michael Foot. However, he went on to win a battle that many came to see as one for the soul of the Labour party when he saw off a challenge for the deputy leadership from the hard left candidate Tony Benn in 1981. Healey won by 50.4% to Benn’s 49.6%.
During his time in No 11, Healey faced five years of uninterrupted economic and political crisis, swearing by the maxim: “When in doubt, do the right thing.”
An intellectual and political bruiser, he had a gift for humour, most famously equating being attacked by his Conservative opposite number and friend Sir Geoffrey Howe to being “savaged by a dead sheep”. On once encountering Joseph Stalin, he said: “He was a bit of a shit really.”
Healey, also notable for bushy eyebrows, was the first and only chancellor to appear on the Morecambe and Wise Show.
Cameron led tributes, saying:
We’ve lost a huge figure of postwar politics. A hero in world war two as Beach Master at Anzio and a brave politician, Denis Healey told his party hard truths about Britain having to live within her means. By all accounts he was a hugely entertaining man personally – and author of tremendously readable and informative books. A great man and a genuine public servant has left us. We should mourn with his family and give thanks for all he gave our country.”
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, also paid tribute to Healey, tweeting:
Neil Kinnock, former Labour party leader, said Healey held a rich political talent. “He didn’t suffer fools gladly or, indeed, at all. That partly explains why he was never leader of the party. He was brilliant in the Commons, an ebullient campaigner in the country, and his piano-thumping performances in byelection singsongs were – like him – loud, lively, and uplifting.
“His commitment to Labour was total, his character was unforgettable. To know Denis Healey was to enjoy him,” Kinnock said.
Healey was regularly maligned and thwarted by Labour’s leftwing, which installed Foot as leader.
He spent much of his time as chancellor battling large sections of the party, which met much of his policies – including pay restraint and cuts to public spending cuts in another era of austerity – with outright hostility.
As chancellor, as well as securing an IMF loan, he had to deal with rampant inflation after oil prices rocketed in 1973-74.
Born in London on 30 August 1917, he was brought up in Keighley, Yorkshire.
After attending Bradford grammar school and Balliol college, Oxford, Healey joined the army in 1940 and served in north Africa and Italy. He married in 1945.
He failed to win the safe Tory seat of Pudsey and Otley the same year, but was elected in Leeds South East following a byelection in 1952. He held the seat for three years and then Leeds East from 1955 until 1992.
Former shadow chancellor Ed Balls tweeted:
Former Labour minister Yvette Cooper tweeted:
Newsnight editor Ian Katz tweeted:
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