As a politician, Dame Margaret Beckett has always been something of a trailblazer.

The Labour MP, born in Ashton-under-Lyne, became Britain’s first female Foreign Secretary in 2006 and has held a number of Cabinet posts.

When John Smith died in 1994, she became the first woman to lead the Labour party and is currently the longest serving female MP in the House of Commons.

Born in 1943, Beckett was educated at Notre Dame High School for Girls in Norwich, but returned to the North West to study metallurgy at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

She served on the Students’ Union council and joined the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) in 1964. In 1970 she worked for the Labour party as a researcher in industrial policy.

Beckett, whose maiden name was Jackson, married Lionel Beckett, the chairman of her local constituency Labour party, in 1979.

She contested Lincoln in the general election of February 1974, but lost by 1,297 votes to Democratic Labour candidate Dick Taverne.

She stood again in the October General Election of the same year – and this time triumphed by 984 votes.

At Westminster, Beckett became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Judith Hart. She later served as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Education and Science.

She lost Lincoln to Conservative Kenneth Carlisle in the 1979 General Election and joined Granada TV as a researcher in 1979.

She was elected to Labour’s National Executive Committee in 1981 and returned to Westminster as MP for Derby South in the 1983 General Election.

Margaret Beckett arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, February 2003

Beckett became a member of the Shadow Cabinet in 1989 as Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. She was elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party after the 1992 general election, serving as Shadow Leader of the House of Commons.

Following John Smith’s sudden death in May 1994, Beckett ran for the position of leader but came last in the ballot behind Tony Blair and John Prescott.

She also came second to Prescott in the contest for the Deputy Leadership, but remained in the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Health Secretary.

Beckett held a number of positions in the Blair government after Labour swept to power in the 1997 general election. She was Leader of the House of Commons from 1998 until June 2001, introducing less formal Westminster Hall debates to the parliamentary schedule.

She became Foreign Secretary in 2006 after Blair demoted Jack Straw. As well as being the first woman to hold the post, Beckett became only the second woman to hold one of the great offices of state after Margaret Thatcher.

Within a few hours of being appointed, she flew to the United Nations in New York for urgent talks on the Iran nuclear crisis.

Beckett was replaced as Foreign Secretary by David Miliband in June 2007, but was back in government in July 2008 as the Minister of State for Housing.

In her spare time, Beckett and her husband enjoy caravanning holidays.

She was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2013 for public and political service.

John Prescott and Margaret Beckett at the Labour Party conference, September 1993