BRITAIN'S opposition Labour party has been thrown into turmoil by the unexpected death yesterday of John Smith, its leader, a month before European Parliament elections.
Smith was preparing to lead Labour's election campaign amid hopes, strongly supported by opinion polls, that his party would deliver a decisive blow to the ruling Conservatives.
Margaret Beckett, deputy leader, has taken charge of the party's strategy for the June 9 poll, but pressures were building in the Labour Party for the urgent appointment of a replacement.
Smith was elected Labour's leader after his party's third straight defeat to the Conservatives in the 1992 elections. The party was counting on the Scottish-born lawyer with a sharp tongue and strong trade-union ties to keep the heat on Prime Minister John Major, whose popularity is low and whose Conservative Party questions his political future.
Behind the scenes, top Labour politicians were talking yesterday of the need to find an early replacement. The process is complex. ``MPs [Members of Parliament], trade unions, and party workers around Britain must all have a say, and that will take time,'' a Labour adviser says. Labour will have to call an emergency conference of party representatives to appoint a new leader.
Mrs. Beckett does not command widespread respect in the party and is seen as unlikely to succeed Smith as leader.
A strong contender for the party leadership, one Labour MP says, is Tony Blair, Home Affairs spokesman in the House of Commons. Gordon Brown, the Finance spokesman, and John Prescott, the Shadow Employment secretary, are also likely candidates.
Mr. Prescott, a feisty trade unionist, would be able to count on union backing if, as expected, he makes a leadership bid. But a senior Labour MP with no leadership aspirations says it was ``most likely'' that Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown would be frontrunners for the leadership. He says Prescott would be in a strong position to become deputy leader, and could ``put his trade-union connections at the disposal of either Blair of Brown.''
Opinions within the Labour Party appeared to be divided over whether Smith's sudden removal from the scene would damage the party's prospects in the European Parliament elections.
The Labour MP says the Conservative Party was ``so divided on European policy'' that ``anyone could exploit their weakness.''
Another MP speculates that Smith's removal might undermine Labour's claim to be united over Europe. As leader, the MP says, Smith ``put an end to Labour squabbles over European policy.'' Blair and Brown are both strong supporters of British membership in the European Union.
Under Smith's leadership Labour did well in local elections a week ago. Public opinion polls indicated that many voters saw the local elections as an opportunity to express their displeasure with government policy in general and as a referendum on Mr. Major.