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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 July, 2005, 20:17 GMT 21:17 UK
Obituary: Sir Edward Heath
Edward Heath with Margaret Thatcher

Edward Heath stayed just four years at Number 10. He spent the rest of his life trying to change the negative impression of his time as prime minister.

Opinion is still deeply divided.

He was the ambitious son of a carpenter and parlour maid whose hard work took him to Oxford University and eventually into Parliament.

In the 1930s, at Nuremberg, he witnessed at first hand the might of Nazi Germany. The horror this instilled inspired Heath's lifelong commitment to a united Europe.

He entered Parliament five years after the war where he would represent Bexley for half a century. His rise was rapid.

He was Chief Whip during the Suez crisis and it was his job to try to get Britain into the Common Market in the early 1960s, something he would not manage for another 10 years.


In 1965, he became the first Tory to be elected leader by his fellow MPs. But within a year, he had lost a general election to Labour's Harold Wilson, whose easy touch with the voters put Heath on the defensive.

Edward Heath at the wheel of a yacht
Sir Edward was a world-class yachtsman
Heath's people decided that the lonely, distant bachelor needed an exciting new image and they found one.

He transformed himself, in his late 40s, into a world-class yachtsman. The wind was suddenly blowing in his direction, and there was a general election just round the corner.

Against all the odds, he beat Labour in 1970, and took office promising to be tough on pay and tough on the unions.

His cabinet backed his approach, but millions of workers bitterly resented it. Strikes broke out everywhere. For six full weeks, there was no refuse collection and worse was to come. But it was not all gloom for Heath.

Dark days for the government

The greatest achievement of his life, as he saw it, was securing Britain's entry into the Common Market.

But the lights were fast going out on the Heath government: endless powercuts, a three-day working week, a pay freeze, all against the background of the 1970s oil crisis.

Edward Heath at Oxford
Edward Heath at Oxford
Britain's miners were now threatening to bring the government down. Heath called an election in February 1974.

The result of the election was inconclusive and a few days later he was forced to resign, being replaced by Labour's Harold Wilson, who formed a minority government. Heath would never return as prime minister.

A few months later, Wilson's government was confirmed in a second 1974 election, and the Tory knives were out for Heath.

Face to face with Saddam

A junior colleague named Margaret Thatcher surprised everyone by trouncing Heath in the first round of the ensuing leadership contest. What followed was called the longest sulk in modern politics.

Over the years, he attacked almost all her policies and when she, too, was eventually deposed, his satisfaction was evident.

In his later years he became the Father of the House of Commons, the longest-serving MP. And the now-ennobled, Sir Edward presided over the election of the first woman Speaker.

He even came face to face with Saddam Hussein to get British hostages released during the Gulf War and, soon after, celebrated his 80th birthday in the company of The Queen at Number 10.

And while many had seen his lack of a wife as a disadvantage, he had no regrets.

Sir Edward Heath enjoyed life. Among other things he was a successful author, an avid art-collector and a generous host. As a politician, he was honest but outspoken, principled but stubborn.

What wounded him most was the sight of the party he loved rejecting the things he had believed in for a lifetime.

A look at Sir Edward Heath's private life

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