Activists call for fightback by Major

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The Independent Online
The Tory faithful arrived in Blackpool last night fuming with the defection of Alan Howarth to the Labour Party on the eve of the party conference.

Branding him a traitor, activists were angry about the timing of his defection to try to overshadow the conference. Many grassroots supporters wanted John Major to lead a fightback with a positive agenda to show the Government has not run out of steam.

In spite of the blow to Tory morale, and the Tories' low standing in the opinion polls, a stiff upper lip was evident at the Imperial, the conference hotel where the Cabinet are staying.

Activists made it clear to Mr Major at the agents' dinner last night that the Government needs to show a positive agenda to overcome the setback of Mr Howarth's "betrayal".

"He has made party members rally round the flag of the party and it is has made them more determined," said Sylvia Mason, agent for Haselgrove.

Two Glasgow Tories said Mr Howarth's switch was as bad as the last-minute conversion to Rangers by the Celtic football hero, Mo Johnston. "He was a traitor and will be despised for the rest of his life," said Malcolm Mulheron, from Eastwood. "It's the same with Alan Howarth." Tories were "like lepers" in Glasgow, he said, but he would never join Labour.

Other representatives were keen to dismiss the Howarth defection as a "two-day wonder". But down the promenade, Frank Dobson, a member of the Shadow Cabinet, was offering membership forms to any Tories who wished to switch allegiance. "Another two or three MPs is all we need to force a general election," he said.

The mood in the coffee room at the Imperial was stoical. They have witnessed conference crises before at Blackpool, including the Sara Keays revelations which brought down Cecil Parkinson. "I am looking for a bookie to put pounds 5 on the Conservatives to win the next election. I am convinced we will win," said Diana Challen, of Eastleigh. "What we need to show is strength of purpose."

Few wanted to see more of the Thatcherite policies which forced Mr Howarth to desert the Tory party. They had been told to expect announcements, but they wanted fresh ideas to improve the standard of living, including action on crime, not an attack on the welfare state to pay for tax cuts. Roseanne Dane, from Esher and Walton, said Tony Blair was a "hard act to follow. We need enthusiasm from this conference. I am sick of being battered for things that are not our fault".

Her husband, Michael, said: "The test will be in positive policies put forward because the one thing there was last week at the Labour Party conference was a complete absence of commitments, apart from the song and dance about the BT deal. We can go onto the attack when Labour begin to tell us what their policies are."

Sir Norman Fowler, the former Conservative Party chairman, tried to steady nerves over Mr Howarth's resignation. "It is not going to overshadow the conference. There has been a trade in the other direction. Most have been from Labour to the Conservatives."

Lady Doreen Miller, chairman of Greater London Tories, blamed the Tory party leadership for accepting Mr Howarth as a Conservative. "I think Central Office was daft to let him in," she said.

"It's funny. He seems to have become disillusioned about the time he got the sack as a minister."

Today's business

Morning session: Debates on agriculture (key speaker: Douglas Hogg); rural affairs (John Gummer); address by the party chairman, Brian Mawhinney.

Afternoon session: Debates on foreign affairs and Europe (Malcolm Rifkind); defence (Michael Portillo); and national heritage, including the Lottery (Virginia Bottomley).