British Labour Party veteran Healey dies at 98

Denis Healey, one of the heavyweights of British post-war politics, dies at the age of 98.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA (REUTERS) – Denis Healey, one of the heavyweights of British post-war politics often described as the best prime minister the opposition Labour Party never had, died on Saturday at the age of 98.

Known for his wit, oratorical skills and large bushy eyebrows, Healey held the key posts of defence secretary and finance secretary in the 1960s and 1970s during his 40 years as a lawmaker.

“A great man and a genuine public servant has left us,” Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement. “We should mourn with his family and give thanks for all he gave our country.”

Political commentators said Healey’s death marked the end of an era in Labour’s history.

His Conservative opponents never let him forget the moment in 1976 when he led Britain to get a loan from the International Monetary Fund. Three years later he was in charge of the nation’s finances during the so-called “winter of discontent”, when widespread strikes led to rubbish rotting in the streets and dead bodies going unburied.

Having lost the national election to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party in 1979, Healey failed in a bid to become party leader the following year when Labour lurched to the left with the appointment of Michael Foot.

A parliamentary orator of stature with an intellect to match, Healey provided some of the more memorable moments in the House of Commons, once describing a rhetorical onslaught from opponent Geoffrey Howe as akin to being “savaged by a dead sheep”.

Described by the Financial Times as an “intellectual with the common touch”, he named the day that Britain paid back the IMF debt as “sod-off day”.

Born in 1917, Healey studied at Oxford University and fought in the army during World War Two. The BBC said he died peacefully at home.