LONDON -- Lord Willie Whitelaw, the powerful deputy to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, resigned from the Cabinet for health reasons Sunday, less than a month after he suffered a minor stroke.
The 69-year-old World War II hero also resigned from his post as government leader in the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, a Thatcher spokesman said.
Whitelaw had been a leading member of the ruling Conservative Party since 1958 but only burst to national fame when he staged negotiations with the Irish Republican Army in 1972. He was intensely loyal to Thatcher and wielded great -- if hidden -- influence in Britain's No. 2 government post, political analysts said.
They said his resignation came as 'a serious blow' to the government as it prepared to face a 'stormy' new session in the House of Lords in its campaign to push through Thatcher's far-reaching plans to revamp Britain's education and local taxation system.
Analysts said her plans for radical reform are part of her 'Capitalist Revolution' to curb the power of Britain's socialist Labor Party and its so-called 'Loony Left' militant wing.
Thatcher, who won power from Labor in 1979 and last week became Britain's longest serving prime minister this century, had edged out Whitelaw as Conservative Party leader in 1975.
But afterwards, 'good old Willie' -- as his political allies call him -- became her deputy and one of her closest advisers.
Thatcher's No. 10 Downing Street office, which announced the resignation, said she was honoring Whitelaw by not appointing a replacement to his post as deputy prime minister.
'The position of deputy prime minister was unique to you for your unique qualities and comes to an end with your service,' she said in a statement issued by her staff.
Whitelaw, who won a Military Cross for heroism during the World War II Normandy D-Day invasion, suffered a minor stroke before Christmas and was hospitalized for about a week. His doctors had advised him to resign for health reasons, Thatcher's office said.
Although long a top Conservative, Whitelaw first gained national prominence when he was appointed the Cabinet minister in charge of Northern Ireland for a year and held secret negotiations with the IRA in 1972. The IRA is fighting to end British rule of the mostly Protestant province so it can be united with the Catholic Irish Republic.
The negotiations, which eventually became publicly known, led to a short-lived cease-fire with the IRA -- a truce that IRA leaders acknowledge weakened their organization and allowed Britain to make gains in combating the IRA's 'guerrilla war of attrition.'
In his long career, Whitelaw also held the Cabinet posts of Home and Employment Secretary and his resignation means that Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe -- by virtue of his Foreign Office portfolio - automatically becomes the No. 2 man in the Cabinet.
Whitelaw's position as leader of the government in the House of Lords will be taken by his deputy, Lord John Belstead, a Downing Street spokesman said. Whitelaw will remain deputy leader of the Conservative Party.