Leading Article: The defection of Shaun Woodward illuminates the Tories' fatal flaws

THE STRANGE Death of Conservative England, part 23. The defection of Shaun Woodward is one of those lightning flashes which lets us see that what we thought was a familiar landscape has assumed a new shape. It seemed that British politics was settling back into its comfortable two-party assumptions. The Conservatives - at least until their latest disaster over the London mayoralty - seemed to be slowly climbing back to a position of credible opposition, a process which would always take two elections.

It seemed that a lot of New Labour's One-Nation rhetoric was wearing off. All that stuff about the new politics ushering in a "radical" century of non-Conservative hegemony had gone a bit cold. Tony Blair has seemed much more Labour of late, and rather less New, while Charles Kennedy is more of an independent liberal than part of the Blair "project".

Then the lightning strikes. Of course, there are some reasons for thinking this is less than a sky-splitting occurrence. William Hague is quite right to point to an element of careerism in Mr Woodward's decision. There would appear to be more than a touch of pique in the decision, too, as it was the day after he was sacked from Mr Hague's front bench that Mr Woodward had his first meeting with the Prime Minister. And of course principled defectors should stand down and fight by-elections - and follow Bruce Douglas-Mann, the SDP MP for Mitcham and Morden in 1982, to honourable defeat.

But it must be remembered what the issue was over which Mr Woodward was sacked. It is bizarre in a way that such an irrelevant and symbolic piece of legislation as Section 28 should cause such upheaval. The ban on the "promotion" of homosexuality by local councils was an attempt to legislate against a phantasm, and of course there have been no prosecutions since it was passed in 1988. But symbolism matters, and the law has inhibited schools from simple education about homosexuality and from taking effective action against bullying of boys who are considered to be different. Mr Woodward should be congratulated for making the Conservatives suffer for their narrow-minded and wrong-headed support for this law.

Equally, Mr Hague will regret his immediate and bitter attack on Mr Woodward as a careerist. He should worry when careerists choose another party. For the whole of this Conservative century, as the Prime Minister calls it, until 1994, the traffic in defections had been all one way. Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald effectively joined Conservative administrations. In the post-war period Labour lost Reg Prentice and John Horam to the Tories. Now the trade in people who want to be ministers is in Labour's favour. Mr Hague would do better to worry about the underlying causes of this phenomenon.

There may always be a place in British politics for a party of moderate nationalism and pragmatic conservatism. As Mr Woodward's predecessor as MP for Witney, Douglas Hurd, said yesterday, the Tory party is immortal, but there is no point in being immortal in opposition. What a day, then, for Michael Portillo to go into print with an article arguing that Britain does not need to join the euro. Everyone knows what that means: he is trying to make the economic case follow the argument of sovereignty. If Britain can thrive outside, it justifies his belief that Britain should never join on principle. But it is not as simple as that, and those pro- Europeans left in the Tory party must fight to keep open the pragmatic possibility that it might one day be in Britain's economic - and therefore political - interest to join.

More culpable has been Mr Hague's failure to assert the old Tory tradition of tolerance. It is lamentable that his party should be so much in disarray at what is normally the low point of any government's fortunes. There are many causes of this parlous position, but the one that Mr Hague could do most about is his failure to challenge Labour effectively for the centre ground. The Conservative party must be socially liberal or it will be immortal in opposition.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before