Leading Article: Call off the dogs

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THE DEFECTION of a top-flight politician from one party to another is always embarrassing - an embarrassment the Labour Party suffered on a grand scale in 1981, when two dozen MPs defected to the newly formed Social Democrats in a single year. Really, though, the Tories take the political biscuit.

It cannot be denied that the loss of Shaun Woodward, the former director of communications, does not make the Conservative Party look good. Still, the party should feel able to stick to substance in belittling his action, instead of resorting to sordid smears that demean themselves, their party and British politics in general.

Policy issues have almost been ignored in the wake of Mr Woodward's pole- vault across the Commons floor. Instead, there has been a stream of unpleasant smears, culminating in coverage in two pro-Tory papers that focused on Mr Woodward's transsexual sister. Front-page headlines talk of the "traitor MP" alongside front-page photographs of the "sex-change brother" declaring: "We're all with him."

Even pro-Tory papers talk of a "gay smear campaign" orchestrated by the Tories. The lifestyle of the (married) Shaun Woodward has been questioned, in what he describes as "delving around in order to muckrake". This is not just ludicrous; it borders on the immoral, and is unworthy of the Conservative Party. So, Mr Hague, please pull your outriders out of the gutter and return to fighting on issues, not innuendos.