DAVID McLetchie, the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, died today from cancer at the age of 61.
The Lothian MSP, who led the party between 1998 and 2005, had fought the illness for the past year, continuing to represent his constituents.
His death prompted a lowering of flags to half mast outside the Scottish Parliament, and tributes from across the political spectrum.
Prime Minister David Cameron led those praising his political contribution, saying he was an “immense figure in Scottish politics and a towering strength to our party in Scotland”.
First Minister Alex Salmond described him as “a very considerable politician of the devolution era”.
A lawyer by training, Mr McLetchie was elected for the first time in the inaugural Scottish Parliament elections, when he took his place alongside fellow leaders Donald Dewar, Jim Wallace and Alex Salmond.
He quickly built a reputation as a parliamentary performer of the first order, particularly over his questioning of the then First Minister Henry McLeish’s expenses claims.
At the 2003 elections, he took the Edinburgh Pentlands seat from Labour, a result he ranked among his highest achievements, before being forced to resign as leader following questions over his own travel expenses.
More recently, he was a key figure setting up the pro-UK “Better Together” campaign.
His family said they were “devastated” by his death.
Mr McLetchie leaves a wife, Sheila, a theatre nurse at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, a 32-year-old son by his first marriage to his late first wife Barbara, and two stepchildren.
He was surrounded by his family as he passed away early this morning at St Columba’s Hospice, Edinburgh.
Colleagues reflected yesterday that Mr McLetchie’s key achievement as leader was keeping the Conservatives at the forefront of Scottish politics at a time when they had just lost all their MPs in Scotland.
Mr Cameron said: “When devolution came, he picked up the reins and made sure that the Scottish Conservatives had a strong voice at Holyrood. He was one of Scottish politics’ most formidable intellects and finest debaters.”
There were also tributes to his humour, wit and popularity. Ruth Davidson, the current Scottish Tory leader, described him as a “ferocious debater”, but added: “Such was his conviction and his good humour that even those he dismantled on the debating chamber floor were happy to share a drink and discussion with him afterwards.”
Political opponents praised his contribution last night.
Mr Salmond said he had encountered a man who would negotiate hard “but also fairly in the interests of the parliament and effective government – his word was his bond”.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont MSP said: “We will remember his passion, drive and determination.”
Scottish Conservative chairman David Mundell, MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, said:
“David McLetchie made an outstanding contribution to Scottish politics and public life and will be greatly missed by our party.
“He ensured that the Scottish Conservatives were ready and able to take up the challenges of the creation of the Scottish Parliament and was one of the big beasts of the post devolution era.”
As a list MSP, his death does not trigger a by-election. Instead, the next Conservative candidate on its Lothian list, Cameron Buchanan, is in line to become an MSP for the Lothian region.
Murdo Fraser: ‘A great parliamentarian, a very good friend’
David McLetchie could be brilliant, visionary, infuriating, pedantic, nit-picking, hilarious, inspirational, argumentative, bad-tempered, warm, and kind, sometimes all at once. He was a man who had a passion for politics, but one who always retained a very healthy sense of perspective on its importance to life.
David stood for leadership of the Scottish Conservatives in 1998 in what was to be a closely fought contest with the former Ayr MP Phil Gallie. Preparing his pitch to the electoral college, his somewhat shabby appearance was a concern. I suggested he buy a new tie, something bright, like yellow. He turned up next day in a shiny yellow tie, and won. I doubt it was the deciding factor, but it proved that he could take advice. If he wanted to.
David was a great debater, capable of delivering some cracking lines. He wasn’t afraid of occasionally going close to the line. His “toast to the lassies” delivered at the presiding officer’s Burns Supper at Holyrood caused a few sharp intakes of breath with his barbs at the large contingent of female MSPs. But it was all delivered in good grace with tongue firmly in cheek, and David was such a gent, who dared complain?
He loved politics but was never obsessed with it, boasting that he never “wasted his time” watching political programmes on TV. His real passions were golf and Hearts. He also loved music – the Beach Boys were his favourite band – and on the campaign trail would seek out the nearest microphone and break into song at the first opportunity. His singing voice wasn’t bad either.
David was a great parliamentarian, and a very good friend. His wisdom, counsel, warmth, wit and smiles will be hugely missed, not just by me, but by many others from all walks of life.
• Murdo Fraser is an MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and the former deputy leader of the Scottish Conservative Party