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Tuesday, 24 October, 2000, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
Father Ted finally bows out
Sir Edward Heath
Sir Edward Heath
The decision of Sir Edward Heath to stand down from the House of Commons at the next election sees the departure of one of the few remaining MPs of the generation to have fought in the second world war.

As well as being Father of the House, due to being the longest serving MP in the Commons, the 84-year old former Conservative prime minister is its oldest member.

The announcement of his decision to retire, the subject of speculation for years as to just when he would take his leave from the green benches, is overshadowed by his handling of the Speaker's election the previous day.

That occasion displayed, according to Sir Edward's critics and admirers alike, his famous stubbornness, as he refused to countenance any change to the centuries-old election procedure despite a desire for reform from across the House.

The height of his political power came in the 1970s when, in one of the biggest electoral surprises of the century, he won the 1970 election. He served as prime minister for four years.

Swift rise

Edward Heath at Oxford
The ambitious student
Born in Broadstairs, the son of a builder, Sir Edward went to the local grammar school and from there to Balliol College, Oxford.

During the 1930s he travelled widely in Europe, witnessing at first hand the might of Nazi Germany. The experience instilled in him a lifelong commitment to a united Europe. When he joined the army, he rose to the rank of Lt Colonel in the Artillery.

He tried several careers including journalism, the civil service and banking before becoming an MP in 1950, to represent Bexley for more than half a century.

His rise was swift; first through the whips' office becoming chief whip during the Suez crisis.

As Lord Privy Seal, it was his job to try to get Britain into the Common Market in the early 1960s, something he finally achieved some 10 years later.

In 1965 he became the first Tory to be elected leader of the party by his fellow MPs, rather than placed in the role by the fabled "men in grey flannel suits".

Edward Heath at the helm of a racing yacht
The world-class yachtsman
But within a year he had lost a general election to Labour's Harold Wilson, whose common touch put Sir Edward on the defensive. The Conservative leader's people decided that the lonely, distant bachelor needed an exciting new image.

The sailing PM

They found one in sailing. Sir Edward transformed himself, in his late forties, into a world-class yachtsman: the wind was suddenly blowing in his direction and against all the odds, he beat Labour, 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 Sir Edward. 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 70s oil crisis.

Edward Heath in Parliament
Father of the House
Britain's miners were now threatening to bring the government down. Sir Edward called an election in February 1974. The question which dominated the campaign was devastatingly simple: Who governs Britain?

The electorate gave its answer and voted him out. He and his piano were turfed out of Number Ten - he would never return as prime minister.

A few months later he lost another general election and the Tory knives were out.

In the first round of the ensuing leadership contest he was trounced by a junior colleague: one Margaret Thatcher.

The enmity between the two, not to mention the increasing divergence between the Thatcherite, Eurosceptic direction of Tory policy and Sir Edward's pro-European, One Nation views, became a feature of his later public profile.

But through the years he saw her out of the Commons, as he did others of his prime ministerial successors: Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and John Major, who announced his retirement earlier this year.

Sir Edward's departure at the next election, along with that of Labour's Tony Benn who is also standing down, marks a further shift from the generation that fought and has living memory of the second world war.

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See also:

24 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Sir Edward Heath to stand down
24 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Speaker's election sparks reform calls
23 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Commons at its best and worst
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