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Tuesday, 27 February, 2001, 17:49 GMT
Margaret Beckett: Leader of the House

By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

In many ways Margaret Beckett's political career has been fraught with frustration.

As a candidate from the left of the party, she was elected to represent Lincoln in 1974 and quickly began to climb the junior ministerial rungs in what was to be the last Labour government for 18 years.

In 1979 she lost the seat and it was not until the general election in 1983 that she was back in parliament.

Years in opposition

But it was another 14 years before she was able to take ministerial office again.

During the long years of opposition, Mrs Beckett was a constant figure on the Labour frontbenches, rising eventually to be the deputy leader of the Labour party when the late John Smith took over from Neil Kinnock.

With the untimely death of Mr Smith from a heart attack in May 1994, Mrs Beckett took over the reins of the Labour party until there was a leadership election.


Following the death of John Smith, Beckett ran for the leadership of the party

She ran both for leader and for deputy leader but, cruelly, won neither role - leaving Tony Blair to take over with John Prescott as his deputy.

Under Mr Blair she held a series of key roles in opposition before becoming his first trade secretary.

It was a role she relished, but again she was to be disappointed, losing the portfolio to Peter Mandelson.

There was to be another job for her in government - that of president of the council and leader of the Commons.

Lost portfolio

An important role, but not the same as running your own department.

And given the huge raft of legislation that has passed through parliament under this government it has been no mean task.

Nevertheless it is a far cry from holding your own portfolio and there are not a few observers who would have their money on Mrs Beckett losing a frontline governmental role if Mr Blair secures a second term.

There is little doubt of the respect that Mrs Beckett commands, not just in parliament but through the wider country.

Dignity

Memories of the dignity with which she conducted herself when she came to the Commons just hours after John Smith died will long remain.

Her eulogy was in many ways the most memorable, her words touched the right spot and she conveyed the huge well of emotion for the loss of "the best leader the country never had".

Compared to a schoolmistress by some, there is little doubt of her effectiveness in the parliamentary arena - and under the scrutiny of journalists when given the chance.

Tough beginnings

Mrs Beckett's early years were by no means easy.


A young Margaret Beckett

Her father died when she was just 12 and her family was left to struggle on in straightened circumstances.

Although her parents were not Labour members they were Labour supporters, but it was the fact that an old boyfriend was chair of the Labour Club when she was at college that made her take a first active steps.

Her mother was a teacher and very supportive of both Margaret Beckett and her siblings.

Metallurgist

The future politician went on to become a metallurgist running an electro-microscopic laboratory at Manchester University.

The 1964 election was a turning point for her with a then young Harold Wilson fighting to win power for Labour from a Tory party that had been in power since the beginning of the fifties.

By the seventies she was working in Labour's research department covering mainly industrial policy when she got a call from Lincoln constituency Labour Party.

Met husband in Lincoln

It was in Lincoln that the then Margaret Jackson met Leo Beckett, who was at first her agent and eventually her husband.

They have formed a constant partnership ever since with Mr Beckett working for his wife in her Derby South constituency.

Among the pursuits they enjoy together is caravanning around the British Isles.

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