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.

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