THE former Labour MP Ted Leadbitter has died, it was confirmed last night. He was 77.

He died in the intensive care unit at North Tees Hospital in Stockton-on-Tees, where he was being treated after a road accident.

During his 28 years in Parliament the former MP for Hartlepool gained a reputation as an independent-minded back bencher who was unafraid to criticise successive Labour leaders.

In 1979 he was instrumental in exposing Sir Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, as a traitor and former Soviet spy.

A warm tribute to Mr Leadbitter - ``a patriot and a gentleman'' - was paid by Mr Neville Trotter, Conservative MP for Tynemouth.

Mr Trotter said: ``Ted Leadbitter had a distinguished parliamentary career. He was a kind and compassionate man who never failed to represent his constituents with vigour and passion.

``During his life in politics, Ted expressed moderate and traditional Labour Party views.

``He was a patriot and a gentleman who will be sadly missed in the North-east.''

Labour's elections supremo Peter Mandelson, who succeeded Mr Leadbitter as MP for Hartlepool, paid warm tribute to his work for the town.

``Ted Leadbitter's service to Hartlepool is unparalleled, and he will always have a deserved place in the town's history,'' he said. He represented Hartlepool in Parliament with distinction, and was a popular and effective member of the House.

``He will be remembered for his tireless advocacy of the town's interests and I shall never forget the many personal kindnesses he did for me.''

Mr Leadbitter, who retired from Parliament at the last General Election, was never afraid to strike out on his own on an issue, even if the official party line was different. Once he compelled Tony Benn, then Postmaster General, to intervene personally over the removal of a telegraph pole from the garden of a constituent in Hartlepool.

More than once he infuriated party leaders. Shortly before he quit Parliament, he angered Neil Kinnock by buying shares in British Telecom and British Gas. Years earlier, he bluntly accused Harold Wilson of ``hysteria'' in a row over Harrier fighter aircraft.

He also campaigned hard against the visit to Britain in the 1970s of Alexander Shelepin, the former head of the Soviet KGB.