Labor Party leader John Smith died from a heart attack Thursday, throwing Britain's main opposition into disarray just when it had rebuilt itself into a credible challenger for national leadership.
The stunning death of the 55-year-old politician came as Labor appeared ready to make its strongest run at a return to power since the Conservative Party won control of the government 15 years ago.With no heir apparent, Smith's death was sure to set off a bitter struggle over the party leadership. That could bring energetic new leaders to the forefront - or create new divisions as the party was poised to capitalize on the Tories' unpopularity over a long recession and other political woes.
Smith suffered a massive heart attack at his central London apartment Thursday and was pronounced dead at St. Bart's hospital, Dr. Mike Besser said.
Parliament canceled all business Thursday except for a tribute to Smith in the House of Commons. Among the events canceled was Prime Minister's Question Time, during which Smith would spar with Prime Minister John Major.
"The loss of this generous man is a devastating blow," said Neil Kinnock, who was replaced by Smith as Labor Party leader two years ago.
Labor spokesman Dave Hill said the party was left wondering "how we move forward in the light of this tragedy."
Deputy leader Margaret Beckett was taking over as interim leader, Labor Party general-secretary John Whitty said.
Smith, a bespectacled, balding, soft-spoken man with a reassuring manner, was one of the party's few lawmakers with experience of government. He served as trade secretary in 1878-79 under the last Labor government of Prime Minister James Callaghan.