Death of John Smith: 25th Anniversary

Part of Acquired Brain Injury – in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield 3:33 pm, 9th May 2019

It is of course a pleasure to speak in this debate on Europe Day about my dear old friend John, and I say that with humility. David Ward, his special adviser, is here, and one of the Deputy Speakers, my right hon. Friend Dame Rosie Winterton, knew John well. Many of us worked with him, and you could not work with him without saying that you loved him. I knew him from about 1979, so for about 15 years. We were always in opposition; it is terrible that John never got that chance to be Prime Minister. When I got in, what I realised about this man who had asked me to join his team was what a rumbustious character he was.

I did not know anything about Scottish politics, and when I joined his team I suddenly realised that there were all sorts of internal wars in Scotland that I did not know about. I soon worked out who John loved, loathed and disagreed with, and it seemed that it all went back to time immemorial—or at least to their student debating days. I mean, it was no secret. Look at the quality of the speakers in those days, when I was first in the House: Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and John. I will not go into too much detail, but I will say that there was a very close friendship between Donald Dewar and John Smith, although the same could not be said about his relationship with Robin Cook, which was very deep in some student disagreement they had in the past.

John was a rumbustious character. He was larger than life and an amazingly vibrant speaker. I remember the day we were in here and the Conservative Government were near collapse. It was Black Wednesday—we had come out of the exchange rate mechanism—and he filleted the Chancellor of Exchequer. He did him over in a way that only a brilliant speaker can do.

I used to be a university teacher when I worked for a living. Some university teachers who come here were probably very good lecturers, but cannot speak in the House of Commons; I may be among them. But I know a lot of lawyers who come here and cannot keep the attention of the House. Their skills are about the courtroom, but they cannot do it in here. John Smith could do it in here—absolutely forensically and funnily. In a sense, it reminded me of Harold Wilson’s reputation. John actually turned down Wilson’s first offer of a job, which was unheard of. Wilson offered him a job in the Scottish Office, but he refused because he did not want to be branded just as a Scottish politician. Of course, Wilson was wonderful at interjections; he loved them. Whether in a public meeting or in the House, everybody knew that in his prime he was brilliant at repartee. John was even better—absolutely brilliant. As Alistair Burt said, people were told not to intervene on him because it was like offering human sacrifice in a debate. It was a rollercoaster working for John because he lived well and loved to party, but his work rate was enormous.