The best PM they never had

THERE was a sad irony in the fact that on the night before he died, John Smith regaled the crowds with his humour and intellect at the kind of event Labour could never have dreamt of holding a few years ago.

It was what has become somewhat cruelly known as a ''luvvies'' party - a gala dinner at the Park Lane Hotel in Piccadilly where Labour-supporting celebrities and now an increasing number of businessman and City financiers gathered at a cost of GBP500 [about HK$5,750] a head.

Those who would have been terrified a few years ago, not just politically but socially, of being seen at a Labour gathering felt quite at home.

It was significant in the sense that Smith took the ''fear factor'' away from Labour in a way Neil Kinnock failed to achieve.

Labour now no longer brings the fear of God into the middle classes who, according to the polls, believe they would be treated better by Labour on everything from taxes to crime.

Urbane, sophisticated lawyer and orator that he was, Smith felt perfectly happy in those circles.

He was absolutely convinced he would be the next prime minister of Britain and there are a good few within the Tory Party who would agree.

Labour had rid itself of its self-doubt, especially with the demise of the union block vote. It had a leader who believed in genuine collective leadership and was able to tolerate those of different political persuasions. He had courted the City and industry with outstanding success.

He was well liked across all parties, a safe pair of hands and a scintillating wit, turning Tory jabs back on them and often raising a laugh from those who would oppose him.

The contest for a successor will not be until the late summer or autumn - but who will be able to stand to match Smith? Sadly the party has not just lost a decent and highly effective leader with whom it climbed ladders to great heights. It has also slipped on a snake and in some ways must start the game again.

Smith's collective leadership was a restraining hand on the wilder comments of his team. It has gone now and there is nobody tough enough to hold people in place.

None of the main contenders - Tony Blair, the affable shadow home secretary; Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor arguably the closest to Smith in opinion and Scottishness; Margaret Beckett, the deputy leader who has stepped in to fill the gap; John Prescott, the shadow employment spokesman; Robin Cook, the gnomish trade and industry spokesman seen by many as more kingmaker than king - will have the authority of Smith, they will have to work to win it.

There is time before an election, two years off unless an early election is called, but there is also time for much mischief making in between when the Tories, if they act wisely for once, could capitalise on the loss.

When the Tories gathered in Inverness for their Scottish conference on Wednesday there were those political pundits who were openly speculating upon the party being all but wiped out in the European elections next month in the same way the Canadian Conservatives were hit last year.

My guess is they would not risk that view now.

WHILE there will be some who will suggest Labour might win a sympathy vote, it is more likely that the old fears will start to raise their heads again.

It may seem cynical to say this about the death of one so warm-hearted, generous and all-round decent as John Smith but his demise has no doubt done the Tories an electoral favour. We at least know what John Major represents.

But by the same token it will do Michael Heseltine no favours either. Smith suffered a heart attack in 1988, lost three stone, climbed the mountains of Scotland and appeared bright and fit.

Mr Heseltine suffered a heart attack last year. He appears fine now but there will be those who might use the example of Smith against his chances of replacing Mr Major.

Mr Major is hopefully too decent a character to capitalise on all this but somewhere in a back room at Conservative Central Office there will be those calculating that his own chances of survival are now that much greater.